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Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful.

When I first read this speech, I was in a place of great uncertainty.  My health was failing, I was seriously struggling academically for the first time in my life, and I was 3000 miles away from many of the people I love most dearly. Hawken’s words were earth-shattering and life-changing. They resonate with me each and every time they come to mind. (I encourage everyone to read his words as the quote above is just a tiny sample of the way words can move mountains by speaking to one soul at a time.)
As an environmentalist (and humanist), his speech refers most directly to our relationship with the environment, but it certainly doesn’t end there. In fact, it barely begins there. When asked whether he is optimistic or pessimistic about the future (specifically of the natural world), he responds that a scientist can’t help but to be pessimistic when given the data. However, a human being can’t help but see the abundance of “ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world.”
In the last few years – and more specifically the last year – the data about my future has been pummeling my spirit to the ground. It is incredibly difficult – and nearly damned-well impossible – to hear about my failing systems and what I have to look forward to in the future without losing all hope. To hear that these continued sustained infections are not compatible with life.  To be disappointed each and every time you make a plan and have to cancel.  To awake upon a new day and find that you feel absolutely no better than you did just twelve hours before.  And indeed one does become hopeless.  It only makes sense when given the data. Luckily, it doesn’t end there; humanity gives endless hope when reality attempts to strip it away.
There is a shelf in my living room where hope collects like dust. Over the last twelve months, I feel shame that the shell of my former self has found such difficulty in expressing just how dearly I appreciate the love, care, and hope that has come my way, but please know that the cards, pictures, books, jewelry, pillow cases, balloons, and tokens of love serve as a daily and fervent reminder that hope is most definitely worth having. Especially when it doesn’t make sense.
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Brief update: Other than a brief 24-hour fever (up to 103.5) this past Thursday, I have been fever-free for nearly two full weeks. Further, there have been no fevers since stopping the antibiotics last night (Saturday)! If I can make it through the next 12 hours sans fever, I will be released Monday afternoon. Monday marks 30 days since I was admitted and brings my total time spent inpatient since mid-August up to 95 days. There have been no real strides made and the doctors have reiterated that I will be back. But we’re trying to make the most of the good days I have and want to celebrate them out of the hospital as much as possible.  Thank you for your continued support, prayers, and love.  

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Like most across this country, I spent my time this past long weekend focused on the multitude of blessings in my life. These marathon hospital stays are survived only through the kindness of the people in my life. It is difficult to know how to appropriately thank you all for what you have done for us. You have inspired and humbled me.

I am incredibly thankful that my body has protected my mind against the effects of the recent medical hell and prevented me from remembering a large portion of the worst. I am thankful that the parts that I remember are mostly filled with good and love and family and friends. And I am thankful that my family and friends fill me in on all the life that I miss while incoherent. Thank you to the family members who leave messages and send numerous texts of love. Just pure love. Thank you so much for all the cards we have received. Your words fill us with warmth and remind us how much we’re loved.

Thank you to all my younger friends who work endlessly on the artwork that adorns my hospital walls. Thank you for the e-mailed iPad drawings and the goodnight videos. Thank you for my school pictures and the drawings which constitute my wallpaper. I get questions and admiration all day. And each little glance from the corner of my eye brings a smile to my face.

Thank you to all our visitors. Despite the fact that I sleep through roughly 2/3 of all visits, you keep coming back. You bring your joy, your stories of the outside world, your smiles, and your laughter. All those good things that help to ensure that the medicine used inside the hospital will actually be effective. Thank you for playing the latest strategy games with us for hours on end. Until security reminds us that we are, in fact, in a hospital. Thank you for spending your lunch hour with me. For stopping in after your own appointments in the area. For bringing me fuzzy socks and solitaire games. Thank you for talking about the latest movies and the book you read last month. Thank you for reminding me that life goes on.

Thank you to the family and friends that help to remind us that time is still passing while we’re still impatiently inpatient. Seasons change and holidays still happen. But thank you for making sure we’re still a part of the passage of time. Thank you to my mom who helped us decorate pumpkins and my room for Halloween. Just days after I had pulled a Halloween stunt that nearly took my life. Thank you to my mito sisters for spreading out the Thanksgiving love and for being thankful with us for three consecutive days.

Thank you to the Bush/Dalton/Mahoney household (aka our “Massachusetts family”) for allowing me and Keith to stay for the four days between major hospitalizations. Thank you for sharing the giggles and smiles of my dear little munchkins. Thank you for the love and the tears. Thank you for being our family when our family is so far away. Thank you Sarah for braiding my hair while I was in the MICU and bringing some beauty to White 9 with your Physics equations all over the white boards. Thank you Liz for crossing multiple state lines to bring some holiday cheer and sending me balloons to keep me company when you are unable. Thank you Stef for holding my hand through it all – even while I hated you deeply as the 108.6 fever made me the most obstinate human being in existence.

We are so moved by the actions of our loved ones. But some of the most moving blessings have come from people I hardly know – or don’t even know at all. From people I have only met in passing. Or from people who know of me solely through common friends or family members.

Over the summer, Keith and I travelled 5 hours to upstate New York to attend the Mighty Matthew Benefit. Matthew and I gathered quite an audience of his school friends and we fielded questions about mitochondrial disease and life with our “tubies.” Matthew told one of these friends that I was very sick and in the hospital for a long time. When Matthew came to visit again, he brought with him a get well letter from his friend included with a school photo. It brings tears to my eyes to know that Matthew is so well connected with so many kind and genuine children in his youth. And to know that those 45 minutes resonated with this child and his life was changed by learning more about mitochondrial disease. Thank you to this young man for your kindness and concern. And a huge thank you to his parents for raising such a proper and considerate young gentleman. It’s so reassuring and touching to that see children like Nate are in this world, making it a better place.

About ten years ago, a young girl named Brittany contacted me. She was a good friend of my very close cousin and had recently been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. As I was dealing with my own chronic medical issues, my cousin passed on my contact information, and Brittany and I helped each other through a particularly difficult time in both of our respective lives. It helped both of us to have another young girl dealing with health issues. Although we lost contact over the next few years, my cousin contacted me to let me know that Brittany had lost her life in a car accident. Her death radiated throughout her community. I am reminded yearly of the love she left in this world as my cousin’s family participates in an annual run in her honor. This year, I felt her love even closer as her uncle, Geb B., completed his first Iron Man competition with my name written next to Brittany’s on his sleeve. I feel so honored and loved to have a place next to Brittany’s. Thank you.

My mom has made the 3000-mile trek from her home in California to our Boston-based hospital twice since September. The second time she came she noticed that I bring my own pillowcases from home during each stay. A combination of allergies and homesickness inspired this tradition. In order to keep my sanity, I make sure that my pillowcases are the most vibrant and happy ones that I can find. Shortly after that visit, my mom put a call out to the long list of family and friends who have been following our story and this Thanksgiving, we celebrated with the blessings of nearly two dozen different families who sent the most vibrant and unique pillowcases that they could find. In addition, my aunt sent a beautiful ribbon quilt and a family friend crocheted a bright and happy blanket.

I just don’t know if I can say it enough. Thank you. Thank you to everyone. You are all so amazing. Thank you, thank you, thank you. To those who have called. To those who have visited. To those who have sent letters, e-mails, and care-packages. To those who have sent their prayers and positive thoughts. To those who have placed us on prayer lists. To those who have spread my story and the need for awareness about mitochondrial disease. To all those who have shown such compassion and care. Thank YOU.

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This is far overdue. I have done such a poor job updating here (or anywhere for that matter) in the last few months. So much has happened and so much has changed – and is changing, daily – that it’s difficult for me to make sense of it all. It’s difficult to identify the meaningful moments and not get lost in the drudge of daily life. I’ve sat down so many times in the last couple of months to write an update, but the words are difficult to write and the ideas are so difficult to grasp.

As many of you know – and probably an equal number do not – one of my college degrees is in mathematics. The last few months have been scary and painful and disheartening in so many ways – and yet uplifting, encouraging, and reassuring in many other ways – that one of the only ways to make sense of this time is through numbers. Numbers don’t lie or change. Numbers have no biases or inert fear. Numbers just are.

So I figured that if the best way I could make sense of this time was through numbers and that the easiest way to share was through these numbers. So without further ado, the last few months. In numbers:

  • Since August 13, 2011, I have spent a total of 65 days inpatient. That is over 3/4 of the last three months.
  • There have been a total of 5 admissions. The longest admission was 36 days.
  • I’ve spent time on 5 different floors. Six consecutive days were spent in the MICU (Medical Intensive Care Unit).
  • I have encountered sepsis caused by 8 different bacteria and yeasts. Three times I went into severe septic shock. Twice they thought I wouldn’t make it.
  • The highest fever I reached was 108.6 degrees. It resulted in a 6-minute seizure. Other than my typical brainwave slowing (evidence of my ongoing encephalopathy), I don’t have lasting brain damage other than mild episodes of confusion. I am very lucky.
  • During the last three months, I’ve had acute failure of three different organs: my liver, my pancreas, and my heart. The lasting damage, thus far, has been relatively mild.
  • I have been placed on 9 different antibiotics at a single time. They handed Keith a page with antibiotics listed and had him cross off all that I am either allergic to or with which I have adverse reactions. They placed me on all that remained.
  • I have only been off antibiotics for 25 hours during the last three months. I then spiked a fever of 104 and was immediately placed back on antibiotics.
  • The longest amount of time I’ve been home since mid-August is 13 days. The shortest amount of time is 4 days.
  • Today, I returned to MGH – just four days after I was last discharged on November 2nd. Keith had to call 911 as my fever spiked to 104 (from 101.8) in about 40 minutes. I became unresponsive while vomiting bile and tremoring intensely. My heart rate was 180 beats/minute during this time. This is 2-3 times what it should be. I was taken to our local hospital to be stabilized and then transferred to MGH 90 minutes later. I am now stable and my fever is under control, while being monitored closely. My pancreas and liver are showing signs of acute failure. All of my liver function tests are quite elevated and my pancreatic enzymes are over 20 times higher than the upper limit of normal.
  • The recurrent sepsis (bloodstream infection) is caused by two things: (1) an accumulation of “bad” bacteria in my colon which “translocates” (spreads from my colon to bloodstream); and, (2) a severe immune deficiency affecting my T-cells (white blood cells that recognize and remember antigens in the bloodstream).
  • During one of the admissions, I had surgery to removed my gallbladder, which was inflamed and causing pain. During the surgery, I also had a tube placed directly into my small intestine. I now have two tubes on my abdomen: a gastrostomy tube (in my stomach, used for venting) and a jejunostomy tube (a tube in my small intestine, used for minimal medications and “trophic” feeds of 5 ml/hr, 4-8 hrs/day, 3-4 days/week).
  • My “battle scar” from the surgery (an open cholecystectomy and j-tube placement) is 12 cm long and consists of 22 staples. It spans from my belly button to my lower rib cage.
  • Due to my poor peripheral access, need for intravenous nutrition and medications, and rate at which I need to infuse fluids and medications, I can’t be without a central line longer than 2-3 days.Since August, I have had 10 different central lines (semi-permanent IV lines): 1 port-a-cath, 3 IJ lines, and 6 PICC lines.  The longest amount of time I was able to keep one was 15 days.  The shortest amount of time was less than 2 hours.  Port-a-caths can be permanent, PICC lines can usually last 6-12 months, and IJ lines can typically remain for up to 2-4 weeks.
  • In the last three months, I have required 5 blood transfusions due to my extremely low blood counts.  Thank you, blood donors.
  • While I was inpatient, our hometown (North Chelmsford) received 6-8 inches of snow and 80-90% of the town lost power. Our apartment lost power for over 48 hours. Luckily, we were unaffected as we were still inpatient. When I was discharged and home for 4 days, we still had 1-2 inches of snow. It made me smile.
  • My mama traveled 3000 miles to come visit me while I was in the hospital. Twice. Definitely a “Best Mama Award”-winner.
  • Other than the nights that my mom stayed with me, Keith spent every night by my side. 58 nights.
  • The strength gained from the thoughts, prayers, and love sent and felt by our family, friends, family friends, acquaintances, and even complete strangers has been immeasurable. We remain strong because you fortify our strength. Thank you.

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12 days ago our world lost a princess. 10 days ago we bid her farewell. 5 days ago she was laid to rest. And today? We still struggle to comprehend what has transpired.

Eithene was just short of her 5th birthday when she passed. We take solace in the knowledge that she is no longer in pain. No longer struggling to breathe. No longer hooked up to the myriad of tubies and machines that kept her with us. Eithene is free.

Ultimately, the pain comes not from the loss of Eithene – we are happy for her newfound peace – but from the chasm left in the hearts of those who loved her. Although it may offer little alleviation, we offer our hearts and love to mom Jessica, dad Sean, brother Gabriel, aunt Jill, and the entire Shriver-Hilliard clan. We further keep her best friend 6 ½-year-old Matthew in our hearts as he struggles with the loss of his nearly-lifetime companion.

In order to lessen their current ache, friends of the Hilliard family have taken up a collection of Visa giftcards in order to support the family during this difficult time. If you are interested in contributing, contact me at cnhertzog@gmail.com and I’ll direct you to the proper outlet. You can also make a direct PayPal donation here.

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One year ago, a very special little girl came into our lives. Eithene (pronounced Eth – eh – nee) Rose was a 4-year-old beautiful ball of spunk who, like me, lived with a combination of Mitochondrial Disease (an neurometabolic disorder) and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (a connective tissue defect). She was also born with numerous birth defects which are together known as VACTERL Association.

Over the last year, Keith and I have visited with Eithene and her family (mom Jessica, dad Sean, brother Gabriel, and Aunt Jill) whenever we were in Boston. We have grown to love them. We couldn’t leave a single store without Keith seeing something that reminded him of Eithene or one of the other mito kids we regularly visit. Eithene’s story, however, is somewhat unique. Over the time that we’ve known the family, Eithene has only left the hospital for about five days last July. Other than that, she’s mostly been in a room on the ICP (Intermediate Care Program, a step-down of the ICU) at Children’s Hospital Boston. We’ve visited through numerous infections and medical crises and seen the strength she exhibits on a daily basis. Her mother’s love and faith have been unwavering and inspiring. Not only that, but mom Jessica has helped me through a large number of my own medical crises.

Saying "hi" to True

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Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.
-Dr. Seuss

Sometimes it surprises me how happy I am. How comfortable I am in my own skin. A year ago, I’m not sure if I could’ve seen myself this happy despite all that has changed (my zip code, my health, my occupation, my income, my aspirations, etc.). But I’m honestly, truly happy.

Keith and I deal with a ton of stressors with our daily life that shock many people. For instance, every day this week, I’ve had at least one medical appointment, over half of which were in Boston. (This is not out of the ordinary.) In addition, we’re watching my niece and nephew while my sister recovers from surgery. (This is something that Keith likes to call “birth control.”) We also deal with daily medical regiments including IV nutrition, stoma care, catheterizations, sterile procedures, and medical interventions. (This is in addition to Keith’s full-time student status and my work tutoring, researching, and volunteering.)

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April is Autism Awareness Month. Although Autism has been getting good press, many still don’t realize it’s a spectrum. Language skills, social skills, and development can vary. And autism can strike anywhere, regardless of ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status.

So I have a treat for you. One of my favorite mommies and bloggers agreed to write a “guest blog” about her experience with her daughter. You can follow her story more closely at Living Life with a Side of Autism. Thank you, Jen!

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She sat in the hallway. Alone. In a blue, plastic chair. She was told she wasn’t welcome. She couldn’t behave like that.

She was 3. Non-verbal. At school.

This was life for my daughter before we got her Autism diagnosis. She was treated like the bad kid in class, and every day I received what amounted to a verbal lashing from her teacher. There were exasperated sighs and advice on how to better discipline. I felt like a failure. I had messed up my kid. I was reminded of that each day at 11:30am, when I trudged into the school to drag out my screaming first born. Or maybe at 11:45 after she had stopped having a tantrum in the classroom because she couldn’t put on her jacket, yet had no words to ask for help. Not that it mattered. She was still the bad kid, words or not.

A lot of children are diagnosed with Autism around 2 1/2 or 3. Katie, however, wasn’t diagnosed until the month she turned 6. We went through years of evaluations and diagnosis after diagnosis, none of which really fit. First, we were told Katie had low self esteem. Then we were told it was ADHD. Then, that she was probably bi-polar. None of this explained her extreme language delay or social deficits, however. We were told everything from she just was choosing not to speak, to she just had a strong personality. No one took all of her symptoms and put them together. We were just given a different explanation for each concern we had.

Over the years, I have moved from being the mother who just sat there and nodded her head in agreement, to the mother who does her own research and fights for her child. When Katie went from preschool to Kindergarten, things really went downhill. Fast. She was having a lot of meltdowns at school, and eventually began hitting other students. I was tired of being told my child was just a discipline problem with a speech delay. I lived with her and knew there was more to it than that. I saw her rigid behavior. I saw her inability to transition and inflexibility when it came to change. I saw her not making any friends, not knowing how to play with her toys, and becoming more and more physically aggressive at home. I saw her unable to participate in childhood activities, such as dance, and soccer, and gymnastics. She would either meltdown or be off on her own. I saw how overwhelmed she became around large groups. How going to the busy store guaranteed us a meltdown. How she had severe anxiety over the smallest thing. How she had irrational fears. No, my daughter wasn’t spinning in circle or flapping her arms, but were those the only things that defined Autism?

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