Raising a Child with CMT: Our Story

(Written for Katerina’s CMT Blog: Beauty in the Pain: https://kballsmith.wixsite.com/blog)

Who is Katerina?

Katerina is a bright young college student living with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. Officially diagnosed at 17 years old, her symptoms progressed rapidly, leaving her little time to adapt to a physical disability, unrelenting fatigue, chronic pain, leg braces, and a wheelchair/scooter.

Although her CMT symptoms pose many limitations, she’s a fighter and continues to go to college, dance, and play a big part in the CMTA’s new young adult community – Compass. She also is a talented writer, aiming to encourage and inspire others who live with chronic illness, pain, and fatigue.

​When I first spoke with Katerina, I was blown away by her tenacity, courage, and coping skills. Katerina was a featured guest speaker on the CMTA’s official podcast, CMT 4 Me – listen here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/katerinas-story-living-life-from-a-new-perspective/id1585138996?i=1000548328022

Listen to her podcast, subscribe to her blog. She’s a gift to our community! xoxo

Yohan and me at the VT Cycle 4 CMT in 2019

The Article

“He has what?” I asked when the neurologist mentioned something about sharks and a

tooth. Dr. Sum, the pediatric neurologist was using words like nerves, genes, muscle

atrophy, and progression. I wasn’t able to quite grasp what he was trying to convey, but it

did not sound good. Something was amiss with my 7-year-old son, Yohan, and now this

ailment had a name – CMT or Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. When he told us this disease

was incurable and progressive, I completely lost it.

Before he left the room, he gave me a card, “Here is the website for the Charcot-Marie-

Tooth Association (CMTA). Call them for a packet of information. In the meantime,

continue with physical therapy, and occupational therapy. I’ll see Yohan in a year unless

something else crops up.” And that was that!

Neither my husband nor I tested positive for CMT, so why is it that my only child had a

heritable genetic mutation causing a life-changing neuromuscular disease? What did I do

wrong? How will we deal with this as individuals and as a family? What does the future

hold?

I would ask myself these and many other questions over and over again, trying to

understand, striving to make sense of why an innocent child, my only child, had to endure

such challenges so early on in life. Initially, I experienced grief in all its stages—denial,

anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—and just when I think acceptance

remained strong in my heart, I had setbacks, reverting to anger and sliding down the

ladder once more.

A World Shattered in a Million Pieces

My world shattered into millions of pieces that day, and I never thought we’d be able to

pick up all the scattered bits to rebuild our dreams, our hopes, and our wishes for Yohan.

I quickly learned this reassessment would not be a one-time project, but a repetitive task

taking time, effort, and a lot of soul searching.

Seeing a child struggling with pain, braces, physical limitations, and obvious differences

made me unspeakably sad. My maternal instincts told me to protect, shelter, cajole and

especially do something—anything—to make the world a friendlier, more secure place

for him. The more his self-esteem plummeted and self-confidence lessened, the more I

would try to make his life easier in any way possible.

Yet, kids are resilient and smart. On some level, Yohan felt my fears and reflected them

back by becoming more and more anxious, less focused, and simply put, a very unhappy

child. Something had to give.

What Else Could We Do?

Lightening his load did not seem to be the answer, and neither did catering to his every

need. In retrospect, I was allowing him to be more dependent on me for everything, and

his teachers in school commented on his lack of autonomy and self-motivation.

My husband and I thought long and hard about what was playing out before our eyes and

decided to get some help from a therapist who counsels families on raising children with

medical issues. Intuitively, we knew what measures needed to be taken, but implementing change is hard

and we desperately needed someone to guide us. Slowly but surely, we stopped treating him as different

and let him experience the world on his terms. For me, this was probably the hardest, but most essential

job I had as a parent of a child with special needs.

Tools for Independence

Working together, my husband and I learned how to provide Yohan with the tools needed

to be independent, self-sufficient, tenacious, and optimistic. After numerous

discussions and a lot of trial and error, we got on the same page and worked as a family

towards common goals. My husband started bringing Yohan on camping trips, desert

excursions, and kayaking adventures, treating him like every other kid on the trip.

I changed my mindset, letting him blow off steam on the way home from school, and

listened without judging by creating a safe space for him to open up and talk. Sure, I still

tended to stray at times, fretting over hypothetical possibilities, living much too far in the

future, and being obsessed with “what ifs”—but a shift was taking hold, and overall, life

became more manageable and much more fun.

When all is said and done, Yohan was not the top athlete in his class, so we had the

opportunity to do things a little differently, creating a life full of enriching and rewarding

experiences. Over the years, our motto has been, “Let’s Make it Happen.” We follow our

dreams, live in the moment, cultivate new experiences and live our best lives possible.

Yohan became an expert archer, was scuba-dive certified, visited the Galapagos Islands,

volunteered many hours to CMTA, and graduated from a first-class University and

Graduate school. He is now working in the field of HR for a local start-up company and

enjoying his success.

Yohan is all grown up now!

Encouragement For Parents

If your child/children have CMT, life can still be enjoyable and fulfilling. There is no one

road map to raising a child with CMT, but here are a couple of key concepts I often share:

-Accept (eventually) the CMT diagnosis – it’s the first step.

  • Talk about CMT with family and friends; don’t hide it.
  • Help your children describe what CMT is, in their own words, if asked.
  • Let your children know it will all be okay because it will.
  • Embrace challenges and praise your children for doing their best.
  • Create a safe space for your children to talk about frustrations and anger.
  • Let go and let them live their lives to the fullest, with autonomy and independence.
  • Laugh heartily and often. Laughter really is the best medicine.
  • Involve yourself with the CMTA. We have so many resources for parents and kids alike.

Camp Footprint, the CMTA’s sleep-away summer camp for kids with CMT changes lives. Our volunteers make us shine. Get involved and meet forever friends who understand. Neither your children nor you should deal with this alone. We are better together.

I could not be prouder of Yohan. He’s kind, empathic, funny, and engaging. He rarely complains about his CMT, and lives with the knowledge that every day is a blessing, He has a supportive extended family and friends who love him for his authentic self. If there is just one gift with which I wish to leave him, it is the knowledge that he can achieve his heart’s desire. He just has to believe!

– Elizabeth Ouellette

CMTA Board Member, Elizabeth Ouellette

I’ve been volunteering for CMTA for the past 20 years. Here are a few of my most cherished achievements: I created a school-based program, Teaching Kids About CMT, built the national CMTA Branch network, initiated CMT Awareness week, co-founded the Cycle 4 CMT and co-launched the CMTA’s official podcast CMT 4 Me Podcast with my brother, Chris, who is also on the CMTA Board of Directors.

Guest Blogger: Kenneth B Raymond Tackles the Question – How Do You Explain CMT?

Eleven years ago, late CMTUS founder, Gretchen Glick and I talked about starting the first ever CMT Awareness Week. The 2 organizations (CMTA and CMTUS) worked collaboratively to get the word out about CMT. At the CMTA, I had posters created, wrote email blasts, and asked our branch leaders to spread awareness through groups across the country.

This first CMT awareness week was so successful, that the following year, we dedicated an entire month to CMT awareness, and somehow, Gretchen got American radio host, Shadoe Stevens, to do a PSA about CMT. Listen to this 29-second clip from 2012:

Eleven years later, it is still hard to explain CMT. I read Kenny Raymond’s latest blog post where he addressed this issue, and he brilliantly defines some of the challenges of explaining what CMT is. Thanks, Kenny B. Raymond for putting your thoughts on paper for reflection. How do you explain CMT? Before you answer, read Kenny’s article and then, come up with your elevator speech and share it in the comments. I’d love to hear your ideas!

Kenny Raymond at Cycle 4 CMT, VT

We All Know the Drill

Exploring the Burgeoning Question: “What is CMT?”

by Kenneth Raymond

“Why are you wearing shin guards? You play soccer?”

“What’s wrong with your hands?”

“What’s wrong with your legs?”

Etc., Etc., Etc.

We all know the drill. The answer to the seemingly never-ending questions involves those three lovely letters, C-M-T. And then, the proverbial follow-up, whether it’s a random person in public or even a healthcare provider, requires us to dig deep in hopes of giving them a straight-to-the-point answer that’ll leave them knowing just enough about our disease to remember the name should they hear it again, all the while hoping we give them enough information to know it’s not a tooth disease and that it has nothing to do with sharks.

What is CMT?

“What is CMT?” I’m always trying to improve on how I answer this question. I can easily rattle off some quick factoids, such as CMT is a heterogeneous group of inheritable peripheral polyneuropathies whose name comes from the three doctors who first described it in 1886: Drs. Charcot, Marie, and Tooth; and this name, CMT, has since become an umbrella term that refers to many different inheritable sensory and/or motor neuropathies. Quick and to the point, right? This doesn’t say much about what the disease is though.

Medically, CMT is a genetically caused neuromuscular disease—neuro because peripheral nerve, muscular because the disease in the peripheral nerves causes symptoms in muscles. Genetically caused because each subtype is caused by a mutation in any one of many different genes.

Medically, CMT is an inheritable multisystem neuromuscular peripheral polyneuropathy. Inheritable because each of the genetic mutations that cause CMT are inheritable. Peripheral because CMT is a disease of the peripheral nerves. Polyneuropathy because CMT affects more than one peripheral nerve at a time (poly), as opposed to only one peripheral nerve (mononeuropathy). Neuropathy because peripheral nerve disease. Then, multisystem because CMT can affect hearing, vision, breathing, genitourinary, and much more, in addition to feet/legs/hands.

Statistically, CMT is the most commonly inherited neuromuscular disease nobody has ever heard of. This one is a weird dichotomy unto itself. CMT is a rare disease by every statistical and modeling measure. At the same time, when it comes to inheritable neuromuscular diseases, in totality, CMT is the most commonly inherited. In this context, common and rare can peacefully coexist even if it seems like they shouldn’t.

These above are just a select few examples of how CMT can be described. All of these descriptions are fine and dandy, but not only are these difficult to remember, firing off any of them to Jane Q. Public tends to render confusion about a disease they’ve never heard of. Is there a viable solution—a grand unifying answer, so to speak?

The Elevator Speech

I’m often asked to give my “45-second elevator speech” on what CMT is. My response typically hits several talking points and is usually along the lines of “CMT stands for Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and is a rare inheritable neuromuscular peripheral neuropathy named after the three doctors who first described it more than 130 years ago. Although rare by definition, affecting only 1 in every 2,500 people, and totaling about 3 million people worldwide, CMT is the most commonly inherited peripheral nervous system disease. CMT causes the peripheral nerves to stop working correctly; and this leads to muscle weakness and atrophy, joint changes, difficulty with walking, and hand issues. Some who have CMT have breathing issues, hearing impairment, vision problems, bladder issues, and GI issues. The disease progressively worsens over one’s lifetime, there is currently no treatment, the disease can’t be cured, and it affects everybody very differently from one another.” Sometimes, people will ask follow-up questions. Other times, we part ways with only a, “whoa,” and maybe they’ll recognize the name the next time they hear it.

My “elevator speech” has been a go-to for many years, having evolved only slightly since my initial CMT diagnosis. It’s very easy for me to throw it out there anytime I’m asked. Does it say enough about what CMT is as a whole that it could be adopted by anybody who needs a quick go-to description? Until a week ago, I thought it did and I thought it could. What changed?

Bicyclists as a Catalyst

Kate Lair and Kenny Raymond

For the first time, I attended the Charcot-Marie-Tooth Association’s Cycle 4 CMT fundraising event held annually the last weekend of August in Charlotte, Vermont. This event is huge and people from all over the place, not just locals, attend and/or participate. I met and spoke with many CMTers. Some CMTers were cycling participants riding a treacherous 40-mile course through the western Vermont mountains even though there were shorter less-challenging routes. Some CMTers were there to participate in non-cycling activities. Some were event volunteers. Some were parents who do not have CMT, but their child does (or children do). Some were members of the CMTA leadership and social media teams.

Some of the CMTers at Cycle 4 CMT used wheelchairs, canes, walkers, etc. Some CMTers wore leg braces. Some CMTers had breathing issues. Some CMTers had severely twisted and deformed feet. Some CMTers had hearing loss. Some CMTers had speech impairment. Some CMTers had <fill in the blank>. I’m confident there were many hidden symptoms that went unmentioned and unnoticed. Without a doubt, it was the most diverse single-source representation of what CMT is that I have experienced in-person. As I spoke with CMTers and as I looked around, it became apparent that my go-to elevator speech is grossly inadequate and under-represents what CMT is.

It’s well established that CMT can and does affect everybody differently, and even within the same family. CMT can cause many things. Not everybody who has CMT will experience all symptoms of CMT. The mix of symptoms, the severity of individual symptoms, the rate of disease progression, and the overall disease severity can be quite different for every CMTer. What one CMTer experiences cannot be used to gauge or to predict what the disease will be for the next CMTer, regardless of subtype. It’s one thing for me to read it, and another for me to witness these concepts firsthand.

Is There a Solution for the Question?

What is CMT? The answer to that question, as it turns out, is quite different for every CMTer. My CMT is different than somebody else’s CMT. CMT, for me, looks quite different than does CMT for another. CMT, for me, is twisted, contorted, crooked feet that have led to tendons tearing requiring corrective reconstruction surgery of my right foot (and upcoming surgery for my left foot). CMT, for me, is weakened hands that easily cramp, a knee that used to dislocate before corrective surgery, bilateral hearing loss, unrelenting fatigue, chronic whole-body pain, progressively weakening upper leg muscles, spine changes (kyphoscoliosis), premature degenerative joint changes, speech/vocal difficulties, and for me, CMT is breathing issues. For another CMTer, CMT is wheelchair dependency, is an inability to hold and use a pen or pencil, is 24/7 mechanical ventilation via tracheostomy, and is total deafness. Yet, for another, CMT is none of these things, or a is a combination of these.

What is CMT? True to CMT, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. The answer to the proverbial question is unique to the CMTer who is asked. The answer is even unique to the healthcare provider and to the scientific investigator. There are wrong answers to the question, such as a suggestion that CMT is an autoimmune disease. While CMT might share symptoms with some autoimmune diseases, such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP) for example, CMT is decidedly not an autoimmune disease. Nonetheless, the answer to the burgeoning question is dependent on what CMT looks like for the one who’s giving the answer.

If you were to line up ten random CMTers—somebody who has CMT or somebody whose loved one has CMT, and ask each, “what is CMT?” each of the ten answers are likely going to be very different from one another. The differences are not born of inaccuracy or of a misunderstanding of their disease. The differences instead come from how differently CMT looks for each individual and from how each person individually experiences CMT.

What is CMT? For me, CMT is a cruel and often debilitating neuromuscular disease that looks very different from person-to-person. For me, what was once an easy answer to a complex question, or what was a complex answer to an easy question, has become exponentially more difficult to answer. As a CMTer, it’s easy to answer the question by simply describing what CMT looks like for me. As an advocate, however, I’ve learned my “45-second elevator speech,” while it gives a lot of information, is a disservice to the CMT community as a whole. The solution? I resolve to do better. I have to do better. I will do better.

About the Author

Kenneth Raymond was first diagnosed clinically with CMT1 in late 2002, at the age of 29. He was genetically confirmed to have CMT1A a year later. Kenneth has since devoted his life to studying, researching, and learning all things CMT, with an emphasis on the genetics of CMT as they relate to everyday CMTers. As a member of the Charcot-Marie-Tooth Association’s Advisory Board, Kenneth serves as a CMT genetics expert, a CMT-related respiratory impairment expert, and as a CMT advocate who is committed to raising CMT awareness through fact-based information rooted in the latest understandings of CMT. Kenneth has just published,

Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease Gene and Subtype Discovery: The Complete Bibliography – Fall 2022 Release: A Desk Reference for the Everyday CMTer, the Practicing Clinician, and the CMT Researcher Paperback which is available on Amazon. Kenny also has an excellent website and blog to check out: expertsincmt.com

Kenneth Raymond is an administrator of several Facebook groups. He helps people with their CMT questions, especially those related to breathing and genetics. The CMTA is fortunate to have such a well-versed, well-educated Advisory Board member willing to work tirelessly for the CMTA community!

My Uncle Chris is Phenomenal

My son Yohan was diagnosed with CMT at 7 years old. We have no prior history of CMT in our families. Yohan has CMT due to a new spontaneous genetic mutation. He’s the first in our family to have CMT. Though Yohan’s CMT has thrown roadblocks and presented challenges in his life, it’s also made Yohan resilient, empathic, loving and kind.

A huge thank you to all our friends and family who have supported Yohan throughout the years. My husband, Gilles has always been so good at finding ways to spend quality time with Yohan, engaging him in so many activities: camping, horse riding, kayaking, and now, mountain biking. Yohan’s Uncle Chris has also had a profound influence on Yohan throughout his lifetime. Here is a chapter in their story.

Chris flew in to Claremont, CA to attend my Grad School Graduation. It was a total surprise!!!

Yohan’s CMT Story – Uncle Chris

By Yohan Bouchard

VT summers: me and Uncle Chris

Since I was 4 months old, every summer (and a few below-zero Christmas holidays) were spent visiting my mother’s side of the family on the east coast. Vacations in Vermont were a blast – often the highlight of my year. I have such fond childhood memories of our adventures, which included spending time with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and longtime friends.

Yohan, cousin Warren, my mom, Kevin, James, my grandmother, Uncle Chris, Aunt Mia and cousin Lila.

In particular, I spent a lot of time with my Uncle Chris; we’d go fishing, hiking, and swimming. In winter, he’d also take me skiing and snowboarding. But, as my CMT progressed, it was more and more difficult for me to keep up. I realized I was participating less and less in those outdoors activities, which we both enjoyed so much.

Snowboarding in VT with my dad and Uncle Chris.

Throughout the years, Chris and I had grown very close; he was always there for me regardless of my limitations. He knew my muscles were getting progressively weaker and noticed I was becoming more limited in my physical capacities. It was hard for both of us to embrace the effects of CMT, but we always managed to find alternative activities, like fishing, swimming and just some plain ol’ goofing around.

Goofin’ around with Uncle Chris and Warren

When Chris first brought up the idea of organizing a CMT fundraising event centered on cycling, I was impressed by his drive to actively raise money for a CMT cure. Witnessing his passion first hand, I too got excited by his vision which was to launch both an in-person and virtual Cycle event to fund treatment-driven research.  I was convinced it would be a phenomenal successful, and I was not wrong. .

Over the last eight years, the Cycle 4 CMT has shown me just how far my uncle, and all my family and friends everywhere are willing to go to support me and so many others struggling with my CMT.

A surprise visit to the 1st Annual Cycle 4 CMT event

After the second or third annual event, I decided to face my fears and try to ride a bike again. My childhood adventures of being scared and unbalanced came back to haunt me, but I persevered. I wanted to show my Uncle Chris how much his effort, time and love meant to me. I biked around my college campus a bit, but that was the extent of my efforts.

Last year, with my dad’s encouragement and help, I gained confidence while I peddled on streets and swerved around people; I got back in the saddle. I was determined to actually ride alongside Chris and my friends on one of the Cycle 4 CMT routes. Of course, COVID had other plans, but it did not stop me. I did cycle in the Virtual Cycle (and Walk!) 4 CMT event with my dad and a group of friends over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It was extremely fulfilling to do the actual ride with my dad and peers instead of sitting on the sidelines. My new electric bike was a game-changer!

Me and my dad, Gilles. We don’t go around obstacles, we face them straight on!!

I’m so pumped to go to Vermont this year and finally ride with my Uncle Chris in the 8th Annual Cycle 4 CMT. I will realize this dream as I want to show Uncle Chris how all his work has inspired me to face my fears and overcome them. I am extremely fortunate to have a supportive, loving family and an Uncle who is willing to go the extra mile.

Want to join us? Go to: www.cycle4cmt.com

Registration opens March 15, 2021. We are having both an in-person event in Charlotte, VT, on Sunday, August 29 and a virtual even from March 15-August 31, 2021, an anyone, anytime, anywhere can participate!!

Pony Takes Stand to End CMT

OUR STORY –

Yohan and I had so much fun trail riding when we were younger. Oh, the stories we could tell!! I’ll never forget the time I stepped in a bee’s nest and ran for my life with Yohan on my back! He held on to my mane and stayed on. Phew! Close call!

 

 

When my friend got a little older, he rode me less and less. I thought it was my fault. Did I eat too much? Was he embarrassed about my being  just a tad shorter than a real horse?  Was I too messy? One day, we had a heart-to-heart. He explaining that he had CMT. At first, I was excited – Country Music Television?  Yee-Haw! He’ls going to be famous – a  Country Music Star! Nashville anyone? I was dreaming of lights, camera, pampering! I might even be on TV!

 

My enthusiasm was short lived when he explained that CMT stands for Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease – a progressive nerve disease that affects his hands, feet, legs, spine and balance. He just could not ride me anymore, and we were both very sad. But, he did right by me, kept me in his family and today I have the best life ever at the Horse Park in Woodside.

 

Yohan sees me every time he’s home from school and I want to celebrate his kindness, understanding and compassion. His CMT makes his nerves deteriorate and his muscles weak. He looks so happy all the time, but I know that deep down, he’s worried about what the future will bring.

This year, I’m giving back by walking for Yohan. I’m not that into exercise, so this is going to be challenging. I may not be the youngest horse in town, or the fittest, but I sure am the most determined. Please sponsor my walk. I’m walking for Yohan and all my friends with CMT. I’m walking for all who can walk no longer. I’m ready to go the distance for you. Please sponsor me: https://cmta.akaraisin.com/pledge/Participant/Home.aspx?seid=19065&mid=9&pid=4927675&fbclid=IwAR2W9g_HUpB0SXYMkphUJdpnCESvOz9E0VDy8O25VnbGoUk8fEdIzB9VMiU

 

And here’s the best part – for every $10 raised, I get a carrot! So give generously!! xoxo

Your friend,

Athos

PS: I chose $2,600 for a goal – Yohan and I are both 26, so I figured $100 for every year lived would be a good idea. Help us reach our goal!

Athos and Yohan

CMT: So Much More Than Hands and Feet!

Yohan gets Rylee’s mind off her knee pain.

 

“What’s up with the knee brace?” I asked 12-year-old Rylee, who was visiting from Pennsylvania for a couple of days. Head down, in a whisper, she told me, “My knee keeps popping out of joint. It hurts really bad when that happens. ” Just the thought of having my patella on the side of my leg for any extended amount of time makes me cringe. Yuk!

 

I will not stand for this. Will you?

Helping Yo with his drops!

“Ugh. Can you put these drops in my eyes?” Yohan groaned. He had just had eye surgery and needed drops every hour, on the hour. I almost said, “Buddy, you can do that yourself.”  And then I remembered his tremor and weak grip strength.  “I tried,” he grimaced, with water streaming off his cheeks, “but I missed!”

I will not stand for this. Will you?

Bethany and Elizabeth

I dread the thought of Bethany coming down with a cold because coughing takes energy and congestion robs her of the precious air needed to breathe effectively. Did you know that CMT can affect the nerves leading to the respiratory muscles? For some with CMT, the thoughtless act of breathing freely becomes a forced, challenging and anxiety-provoking undertaking, which may necessitate frequent visits to the ER. Not fun. Not fun at all.

I will not stand for this. Will you?

So, you see, CMT is much more than a funky way of walking, foot drop, high arches, and leg braces. CMT may also causes cramps, falls, balance difficulties, cold extremities, nerve, muscle and joint pain, curled hands and toes, altered reflexes, extreme fatigue, sleep apnea, hearing loss, etc.  In short, CMT is a bitch!

I will not stand for this. Will you?

The most amazing thing about CMT is that we can fight it. Unlike many diseases, the genes that cause many types of CMT are known. The CMTA’s scientists are working tirelessly to stop or slow down the progression of CMT, and they are making headway. We’ve accomplished so much since 2008:

 

Highlights

• Clinical planning has started. Working together with the NIH and the MDA, we are developing our clinical infrastructure: new centers, more clinicians, patient information and history over time.
• We are developing ways to measure disease progression in people with CMT.
• We are starting to use cellular and animal models of CMT to help pharmaceutical companies test their drugs quickly.
• We are partnering with pharmaceutical companies and labs to apply breakthrough genetic therapies (like gene therapy, RNAi, CRISPR) to CMT.
• We will continue to expand our program to cover more forms of CMT.

Join me to raise the funds to bring a drug to market and rid the world of CMT. Big goal? Well, maybe, but why not dream big? We’ve got to start somewhere.

WE will not stand for this.

Imagine what we can do TOGETHER! Did you know funds are what stand in the way between us and a treatment for CMT? Not scientific understanding. Not resources. Not clinics. Not patients. MONEY. I certainly don’t have all the money needed to bring a drug to market, but with your help and the help of others, the money can be raised to support scientific research. It’s doable.

Chris Ouellette-The organizer of the Cycle 4 CMT

Want to help? Our family has put all its efforts into Vermont’s Cycle (And Walk!) 4 CMT event and thanks to friends and family like you, we’ve raised close to $650,000 over the past 4 years. That’s not chump change, friends.

We are now preparing for the 5th Annual Cycle (and Walk!) 4 CMT event, to be held in Charlotte, VT on Sunday, August 26. Every dollar counts. Any donation is valued. Spread the word.

To join our efforts to build a better tomorrow, check out our website: www.cycle4cmt.com and donate a little or a lot.

 

Here is how to start changing lives:

1) Register for the Cycle (and Walk!) event and/or,
2) Fundraise! Tell others why this cause is important to you and/or,
3) Spread the word and register a friend and/or
4) Sponsor a rider, a walker or the event itself and/or
5) Sign up for the after-party.

Thank you for offering a promising future to Yohan, Rylee, Bethany and the 2.8 million + people around the world with this debilitating disease.

Never Give up or Give In. Just GIVE!

 

In Flora’s Memory – Just Say It! Again and Again and Again!

“My high school years?” she shuddered. “After the doctors diagnosed me with polio at 13-years-old, they wanted to straighten my misshapen feet. So, for the next 5 summers in a row, my school vacations were spent either in the hospital or at home, immobilized, with heavy plaster casts weighing me down.”  With raspy, uneven breath, Flora described those dreadful Mississippi summers as muggy, sticky and hot – really hot. “Neither the hospital nor my home had air conditioning in those days, so I was pretty uncomfortable –  but I got through!”  she added with her usual determination.

 

I first spoke with Flora in 2003, when I was getting to know the CMTA group leaders throughout the country. She told me that after her orthopedic surgeon “straightened her out”, she had left her polio diagnosis behind and moved forward with her life. She went to college, married her husband of 52 years – Billy Joe Jones in 1960 and had three children. After the birth of her youngest child, Cindy, she decided to stay at home to be a mother, wife, and homemaker.

Flora and her husband, Billy

Over the years, her legs weakened and her hands slowly lost function. In 1982, at the age of 45, she was finally diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease or CMT at an MDA clinic. Okay. There was a name for her progressive symptoms, but she wondered what she was supposed to do with the name. She couldn’t just “Google It” because home computers had not made their debut in society.

 

Luckily, by word of mouth, she heard about a CMT conference in Toronto, hosted by CMT International. No way was she going to miss this opportunity to learn and gather more information about CMT. Upon arrival, she was stunned to meet others with similarly-looking feet and hands – 200 other individuals with “the walk” including 30 people who admitted to breathing difficulties, like herself. One of her favorite parts of the conference was educating CMT clinicians about her own CMT.

In 1993, she was elated to discover a CMTA support group in her area. With her passion for spreading awareness and teaching others about CMT, it was not long before Flora stepped up as the leader of the Brandon, Mississippi CMTA support group. In fact, she involved the entire family in her mission and many weekends were devoted to mailing educational information, calling new members and organizing CMTA meetings.

Flora and Jeana Sweeney at the CMTA Support Group

Due to severely atrophied leg muscles, she lost her ability to walk at the age of 58, but that did not make one bit of difference. She continued to lead her group enthusiastically, informing the members about the CMTA, its research, and resources.   Over the course of her lifetime, she touched innumerable lives, informed countless medical professionals and supported others who had a CMT diagnosis.

Toward the end of her life, she could barely use her hands, and her violent tremors made holding or sipping from a cup virtually impossible. Her paralyzed diaphragm made breathing harder and harder with each passing day and her weakened vocal cords affected her ability to talk. Yet, Flora did not let any of those worsening symptoms stop her from fulfilling her mission in a positive, cheerful and comforting way.

I just spoke to Flora a few months ago. She called to check in, to see how Yohan was doing after his foot surgeries. She told me he was always in her prayers. She admitted that her CMT was wreaking havoc on her body, but it would never, ever dampen her inner spirit. Even in her final months, she would not leave home without her brochures. She wanted to be ready to educate everyone and anyone who would listen to her about CMT. In a recent letter from Flora’s daughter, Cindy, she confided, “Even up to her last doctor’s appointment, she educated her doctors about CMT.” In February, Flora was given a new doctor, “a cute one!” she said with a wink. Super impressed that he really was interested in CMT, he  even explained how he could help her live a productive life despite her limitations.

Flora and her daughter, Cindy

Following in Flora’s footsteps, I try to spread CMT awareness wherever I go, even if Yohan rolls his eyes out of his head like he’s screaming loudly. If we all speak about this progressive disease to our doctors, nurses, family, and friends think how many people would recognize the name, the symptoms, and the signs. “It’s CMT.” I say. “Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.” And when the person looks puzzled, which they usually do, I remind them of the acronym – CMT.  To make it stick, I joke that CMT does NOT stand for Country Music Television. And I might add, “ It’s the other CMT-the one that destroys nerves, causes muscles to weaken, and disables the young and old. It’s Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and we desperately need a cure.” And a cure starts with awareness.

In memory of my friend Flora, who passed on April 1, 2018, at the age of 81 from CMT-related breathing complications, please help raise awareness of CMT. Think about it – even the most worthy causes won’t receive a dollar in donations if no one knows about them. Putting a face and a personal story on CMT may spur people into action, especially if they know their support will lead to a cure.

Flora, you are my inspiration to wake up every day and fight for a world without CMT. And now, I imagine you moving freely among the stars and dancing with angels. And I smile.  I may not have told you during our phone conversations, but I admire you and love you deeply. Your memory will never be forgotten.

To find out more about CMTA research, please visit:  https://www.cmtausa.org/breakthroughs-for-cmt/

Raising Kids With CMT-Where In The Heck Is the Manual?

Last week, I purchased a top-of-the-line 4K LED Smart TV with enough options to bedazzle even the most technologically gifted.  Some of the features were intuitive enough that I proudly disregarded the instruction manual altogether.  To my dismay, I soon discovered that a good number of even the simplest functions were complicated, puzzling and downright impossible to comprehend even with the handy user’s manual.

smart TV                                                           New Toy – LED TV

 

Realizing my dependence on this pamphlet of how-tos, I reflected upon all the parenting guides I have purchased over the years, all dealing with every different aspect of the child imaginable: the terrible twos, sleeplessness, anxiety, positive discipline, the emotional lives of boys, tolerating teens, etc  The one book I have yet to come across is called the “THE MANUAL: Raising Kids With An Unexpected Diagnosis (Like CMT, a Progressive Nerve Disease).”

 

Parenting-troubleshooting

 

My instruction booklet was not included in my take-home packet from the hospital when Yohan was born 25 years ago, and I still fantasize about getting my hands on a copy of this yet non-existent source of knowledge.

Initially, I learned to care for my bundle of joy by asking questions, reading a selective few of those parenting books I mentioned above, taking advice from others (even if unsolicited) and relied heavily on my own maternal instincts. Through trial and error, my husband and I, as do most parents, strove to raise and nurture our child to be a resilient human being, who would hopefully be happy, successful, compassionate, friendly, confident, etc….. None of these attributes are ever guaranteed, but parents can and do influence their children to a very large degree by modeling behaviors and values, including empathic listening, acceptance of the whole child, unconditional love, acceptance and positive discipline.

Born with unique dispositions and temperaments, every child will integrate what he or she witnesses, observes and experiences to form a personality, which is in a state of constant flux, molding to and shaped by the surrounding environment. Raising children is truly a humbling adventure, where perfecting parental skills comes through valiant efforts on the part of the father and/or mother to do the best they can at any given moment.

And just to keep us on our toes, life has this nasty habit of throwing wrenches into our well thought-out and admirable plans and dreams, forcing us to change directions or reroute our individual and family’s journey throughout life over and over again.

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For instance, when parents are told that their apparently healthy and precious child has a progressive neurological disease called CMT, (or any other chronic illness or disability) the world as they knew it comes to an abrupt halt. For a while, time just seems to stop as the shock of reality works its way through to the senses. With no current treatment or cure, CMT is a group of diseases whose effects vary greatly from one person to the next, even among members of the same family. The fear of an uncertain future for our beloved child creates a chaos so disruptive, parents may inevitably experience and re-experience a whole gamut of different feelings anywhere from grief, rage, disbelief, depression, anxiety, sadness, hopelessness, to guilt and disappointment. This flurry of unyielding and varied sets of emotions is unequivocally normal and expected in the face of such devastating and unwelcome news.

 

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Stages of Grief

 

We immediately wonder what this diagnosis means for our child’s future – will she be able to play the piano, have children and fulfill her dreams as an actress? Will his legs remain strong, what about his basketball career, and just how much will my son be affected?  Will he/she become more or less disabled than me, than my mother, than other family members? As concerned parents, we all have a tendency to get ahead of ourselves by asking a million questions about the fate of our children by continuously wondering and inquiring about what the future has in store, trying to predict what cannot be foreseen.

To top it off, in the midst of this traumatic news, unsettled parents must return home to their children, bearing the intolerable news that will inevitably change the lives of every single member of that particular family. How hard it is to remain calm, in control and at ease after you’ve been hit with the CMT hammer! In these delicate situations, let’s not forget that children are savvy readers of parental anxiety, tension, and stress. They are inexorably influenced by our attitudes, opinions, and expressions as they learn a great deal about themselves by watching, listening and absorbing all the subtle messages left behind in conversations to be had both in public and in private. They definitely do not wish to see us devastated by their disease (even if we are) and need most of all to be comforted, supported and understood.

So, when a parent unintentionally acts out his or her intense sadness, despair and anxiety in front of their children, the child is sure to take it all in, every bit of it. If our children receive messages confirming that their own situation is hopeless and the future bleak, he or she will surely feel out of control and helpless in the face of upcoming and ongoing adversity.  However, if our kids are met with reassurance and optimism, they will be more likely to cope adequately, if not conquer the intermittent hurdles that are bound to appear throughout their lives. So, the quicker we as parents learn to “deal effectively” with the challenges presented by CMT, the quicker our children will build the necessary coping skills and resilience to live well despite this disease.

Let me qualify the expression “dealing effectively with CMT” as an extremely subjective experience, which takes on a different meaning for each and every one of us. Coming to terms with your child’s progressive disease and limitations takes a lot of time and energy, and as you already know, this does not happen overnight, if ever at all.

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There are still moments when  I am angry at this disease and obstinately think of Yohan’s CMT to be the ultimate definition of unfair lots in life, followed by a pathetic, “Why me?”, “Why him?”, “Why us?” I usually manage to calm down by focusing on what he can do, by living in the present moment and by appreciating the gifts of today. I also fervently practice replacing my negative and catastrophic thoughts with a more positive and realistic perspective which encompasses a broader, less self-centered approach to challenging situations.

The brutal reality is that I cannot control his disease or make it go away.  However, we as parents are far from powerless and impotent. On the contrary, by sharing an unwavering hope for the future, role modeling coping mechanisms such as humor, optimism, faith while remaining connected to others for support, we are fostering resiliency and courage in our children, traits on which they will rely heavily today, tomorrow and the days to come.

Let me reiterate that as parents, we have the capacity to guide and support our children, despite the absence of that darn manual.  There are always silver linings to all black clouds, you may just have to look for them. Hurdles and stumbling blocks exist to a greater or lesser extent in everyone’s life and many times, these challenges will bring families closer together or even offer a deeper, more meaningful purpose to life itself. Whatever afflicts us or our loved ones and no matter how severely, life is truly what we make of it. By planting the seeds of hope, confidence, and self-assurance, we are offering our children the right to a bright and fruitful future.

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Whether it be CMT or some other uninvited disease, our children will have acquired the tools with which to triumph over whatever may befall them, because YOU, as parents, have given them the means. No one ever said that a parenting is an easy endeavor, but your hard work, time and patience is and will make a marked difference in the minds and lives of your children and the generations to come. Manual or no manual, your kids will be forever grateful, which I deem the best award a parent could ever receive.

 

 

 

CMT: An Obstacle To Success?

 

Yohan in PT – Prediagnosis

“His test came back positive for what? Sure, that explains a lot, but what’s it called again?” I asked stunned and a lot bewildered. “CHär/- Kät/ -Merēd -TOOTH, which sounded just wrong when he said it. I guess it sounds strange ANY way you say it, but he was completely butchering the French pronunciation of my son’s new disease (we are all French – can you blame me?) The take away was that our beloved 7-year old son Yohan had a progressive disease of the nerves, WITH NO TREATMENT OR CURE, which would make his muscles weak and useless over time. I felt dead inside – for a very long time.

Alpine Slide, Stowe, VT

My world shattered into millions of pieces that day, and I never thought we’d be able to pick up all the scattered bits to reformulate our dreams, our hopes, and our wishes for our son and our family. This reassessment took time, effort, and a lot of soul-searching, but we managed to accept the diagnosis and manage the Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease or CMT the best we could…. one day at a time.

As a mom, it was tough watching my child struggle with pain, braces, physical limitations, and obvious differences. Maternal instinct ordered me to protect, shelter, cajole, and, especially, do something—anything—to make the world a friendlier, more secure place for him.

For a while, school also became an inhospitable place, and bullies had their way of ruining a perfectly good day. Yohan’s self –esteem and self-confidence took major hits and his anxiety skyrocketed. The more I tried to lessen his burden by catering to his needs and lightening his load, the more resentful and withdrawn he became.  Unknowingly, I was giving him the message he should not go out of his comfort zone because the world is a dangerous, scary place. And, I was setting him up to be reliant on me for simple tasks he was able to do all by himself.

We found an excellent therapist whose specialty was counseling kids with medical issues. Our goal was to empower him by making him accountable for his actions, giving him more and more responsibility, and providing him the space he needed to become autonomous and independent.

Sounds pretty good on paper, but implementation was another story.

On one of our many trips to Vermont, Yohan wanted to try snowboarding. I subtly, but unsuccessfully tried to talk him out of it because I did not want him to get hurt nor fail. He has CMT-related back issues (kyphoscoliosis), tight calves and heel chords.

Kyphosis + Scoliosis = Kyphoscoliosis

 

I assumed the worse – in my frightened mind, he had at least a 75%, maybe 80%  chance of falling in the powdered snow, way over his head, and suffocating because he would not be able to stand up.

First Snowboarding Adventure

With the least amount of enthusiasm you can imagine,  I rented the snowboarding equipment, grumbling under my breath the whole time, and when father and son left early one morning after Christmas, I stayed home and tried to keep very busy, blotting out what was happening on the slopes.

Later that day, after what seemed like an eternity, Yohan burst through the door, still in one piece and with a look of content satisfaction on his face. “I loved it!” he blurted out proudly. “I’m going to take this on seriously! I had such a great day!”

Like many first-time snowboarders, Yohan took a good many tumbles and falls in the snow, but he was confident in his abilities. He knew what he wanted, so he left home with determination and a can-do attitude, and came back fulfilled with a sense of accomplishment.

That event was followed by many more like it and served to reinforce what I already knew as a parent but still found difficult to wrap my head around.  Even though Yohan has CMT, there are many things he can do with the right support, guidance, and freedom.  Gilles, my husband was exemplary in providing many unique opportunities for him to explore his surroundings. An avid skier, mountain climber, biker, etc….he went out of his way to find activities that he and Yohan could do together, as a team.  I am so grateful for my husband’s patience, effort and time with Yohan, as his childhood was full of fun adventures and learning experiences.  I wasn’t as thrilled about some of these outings at the time, but I usually saw the photos after the fact and they speak for themselves-they have memories- good and bad- to last a lifetime!   As parents, if we do not encourage our children to dream big, they might never know all the beauty, wonder, opportunity this world holds.

Kayaking with Gilles and friends

Yohan with Athos, Gilles with Chyna

 

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Yohan is scuba certified, thanks to his dad.

Do you remember the movie about the life of Ray Charles, “Ray”? Despite his total and permanent blindness at the age of 7, Ray Charles’ mother treated him the same as any other child. He was made to do his chores, learn to get around without a cane, and fend for himself. “I won’t be here forever,” she repeatedly told him. Harsh though her treatment of the young Ray seemed, their story is filled with passion, love and many teachable moments. As hard as it may be, and still is, I have witnessed Yohan’s challenges, disappointments, and heartbreaks. But I no longer worry as I am confident he has the emotional fortitude to get through just about everything. If there is just one gift with which I wish to leave him, it is the knowledge that with an open and positive mindset, he can and will achieve his heart’s desire.

 

Archery is still one of his favorite pastimes.

 

 

CMT Is Exhausting: 5 Insider Tips For Friends

Judging a Book by its Cover-Just Don’t

“Who is that girl?” she asked, squinting warily while jerking her chin forward like a rooster, not so discreetly pointing out the slim, well-dressed woman in question. “She doesn’t have CMT! Look at those heels!! Pfft! Forget about it. She’s a fraud!” It’s true, Jeana did not appear to have CMT on the outside, but her past revealed a different reality. Surgeries on both feet when she was only 16 helped her gait immensely, enabling her to walk brace free today.

However, if you look real close, her pinky toes look funky, betraying a harrowing brush

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Jeana’s pinky toe reacts to the surgeon’s scalpel.

with a surgeon’s scalpel. “No need to worry about the little toes on each foot.” the surgeon grinned. “I simply removed all the bones! All fixed!” So, instead of hammer toes, sticking up and out, she ended up with cute, floppy, puppy dog ear toes, which prove to be quite the challenge when wearing sandals.

Floppy toes, like floppy ears, have a mind of their own!

People’s CMT vary dramatically from one person to another, and telltale symptoms of foot drop, muscle wasting, fatigue, pain are not always super obvious. So, to my embarrassment, I often forget she has CMT.

But, I forgot you have CMT!!

How many times has CMT gotten me into trouble? When Jeana and I organize CMTA conferences together, we always do our best to make sure that everything is handicapped accessible; tongs are not used, tables are separated, leaving enough room for scooters and wheelchairs to pass, boxed lunches are chosen over buffets. Inevitably, no matter how much we prep the hotel staff, someone always seems to make a mistake, and we have to think fast on our feet to rectify the situation.

At the Patient and Family conference we held in Los Angeles a few years back, I remember the room being stuffy and hot. After 90 minutes of sweating and fanning ourselves with the paper programs, we took our first 15-minute break. “A big round of applause for Dr. So and So…what an informative presentation!” I exclaimed into the microphone.   “Now, let’s take a few minutes to stretch and quench your thirst with some nice, refreshing beverages. We’ll see you back here in 15 minutes.” I walked out into the hall, and what do I see? Big, heavy pitchers of water and lemonade. Merde!

Making life difficult for people with CMT.

We quickly asked family and friends without CMT or hand weakness to serve the drinks during the break.  After about 5 minutes, I look over at the drink station and our beverage volunteer happened to have wandered off and just disappeared into thin air. People were thirsty….parched even and getting more and more impatient while shifting their weight from left to right, left to right just to stop from teetering over (keeping your balance while standing is difficult with CMT).

I ran over and filled the empty spot for a couple of minutes before my little eye spied Jeana, who was talking, and talking and talking (no surprise there, right?), to a conference attendee.

I spied Jeana with my little eye.

“Jeana,” I blurted out frantically and a bit too harshly,  “if you can’t find someone to stay at the water station, just stand here and serve the beverages to these poor people with CMT who are struggling.” She looked at me in disbelief. Her face expressed what she was thinking. “Really? You are asking me to fill glasses, dumb ass? I too have CMT!” But being the mature and respectful person we’ve all grown to admire and love, she nodded her head and made her way to the water station and tried her best to serve our conference clientele. When I realized what I had asked of her, I regretted it….immediately.  Not because I made her suffer, but because she would never let me live this situation down….EVER!  As much as she did not say in the moment, she let her thoughts be known loud and clear after the conference. In fact, she won’t hesitate to bring this up when she needs a little extra material to tease me with. I hear her voice now, “Oh, really? I’ve got a better one. Elizabeth, remember that day when….  “

Sassy!

People with CMT are fighters with motivation, determination, strength, and willpower. Some are a bit sassy, too! One day, wearing my very concerned and sad face, crying-face_1f622I said something like, “Bethany, I don’t know how you do it every day.  Just putting on socks, braces, and shoes takes so long. It all seems so limiting.”   I was attempting, albeit poorly, to relate to her emotionally in some small way.  Thankfully, I have a Master degree in Counseling Psychology, which makes communication with people from all walks of life so much easier (Like Judge Judy below, I’m inflicting some heavy duty eye rolling on myself right now).

If you know Bethany, she usually thinks through her answers before responding. Not that day! That fine afternoon she was quick and sharp, replying without missing a beat, “Yeah, it’s not the best, but I feel fortunate that I’m walking. From wheelchair to walking is a pretty huge deal.” There was a short hesitation before she emphatically reminded me that she was able to walk much further and longer than I can…a LOT further and a LOT longer. “You are limited by your foot pain.  My braces have set me free!” she replied without flinching.

IN YOUR FACE! OUCH! Insert knife and rotate slowly 3 times. I mean, what do you say to that? ……..Exactly. I said nothing and followed her progress as she trained to walk a 5-day 40 Mile Trek of Peddars Way in Norfolk, England! She succeeded and came through with flying colors!

Bethany walking and training. I am in the picture for effect only. 🙂

Just Ask

I had spoken over the phone to Bethany quite a few times before she moved to the Bay Area in 2012. We had some great conversations, talked about volunteer opportunities and CMTA-related projects. When she moved here, we made a lunch date. I drove. On the way to the restaurant, I asked 100 million questions to which she sequentially answered, “Yes. No, I don’t know”  over and over again until I got really bad cotton mouth from talking too much. So, I stopped blabbering and lived painfully through seconds upon seconds of dreadful silence (The longest ten seconds I’d ever experienced –  it felt more like 10 hours- can you tell I’m an extrovert and hyperactive?) Bethany started to loosen up by the end of lunch, and I caught a few glimpses of the witty and sardonic person living and breathing underneath that cloak of quiet reservation.

Heading back to the car, we crossed the road and I saw that she was struggling a bit to walk, but I did not know if she needed or wanted help. What to do? So, I did absolutely nothing. I pretended she wasn’t struggling and that everything was A-Okay. Walking a step or 2 in front of her, I heard a faint whisper, “Elizabeth?”  I turned around to an outreached hand.  “Can you give me your arm to cross the road?” she asked politely (her mother did a hell of a job teaching this girl manners). My elbow jutted out in a microsecond and off we went, arm in arm across the road. Walking harmoniously side by side, she interjected, with a mischievous grin,” Jeesh. You of all people did not think of lending a helping hand? I’m so disappointed.” WHOA! The girl is a live wire….a comedian! This snarky comment was proof that her dad was also very involved in her upbringing. From that moment on, we became forever friends.

Laughter Really is the best Medicine!

The CMTA held its first-ever leader conference in Las Vegas many years ago. Leaders from all over the US attended, forming bonds of friendship and caring. The first evening, after dinner, we all made our way to our rooms, preparing for a very long day ahead. Breakfast was at 8am sharp the following day. At 7 am, Pat D. our Director of Community Services at the time called me with an urgent request, “ One of our leaders needs help buttoning and zipping his pants.”  Apparently, he lived with family and on his own, buttoning and zipping were practically impossible. “Why do I have to go?” I groaned.  “Can’t we get Dana to go help him…man-to-man? Now, on the verge of yelling, Pat reminded me that, “Dana can’t button or zip his own pants, how is he going to button someone else’s pants?” Good point.

Zippers and Buttons: the enemy

So, off I go to room 3016. When he opened the door, I could tell by his red cheeks that he was quite embarrassed. I felt a bit awkward, but what were our alternatives? I could have insisted that he attend the conference in his boxers, but I’m not usually that mean. So, I simply knelt down in front of him, (please do not visualize this scene!) zipped and buttoned him up and made a joke about the entire scenario. It was a true bonding experience.  The rest of the conference was a no-brainer compared to that experience.

To all my friends with CMT, thank you for trusting me with your struggles, accomplishments, thoughts, and anxieties. And thank you for your patience. I’ve learned so much from every single one of you and continue to learn more every day. And, when I mess up, let me know  – my closest friends don’t let me off the hook, why should you?

Good Friends Are Hard To Find (which can be a very good thing). From Left to right: Me, Bethany, Jeana

The Inside Scoop: The Real Story Behind Bethany’s Book, “How Should a Body Be”?

One day about 7-8  years ago, I get this random call from a young woman from Michigan. She wanted to volunteer with the CMTA. “Sure!”, I said enthusiastically. “We are always looking for volunteers-ALWAYS!”  Now, compared to my loud, overly animated voice and my quick speaking conversational style, my new friend, Bethany, spoke slowly, methodically and in whispered tones. She actually takes a moment to think before she spoke – a new concept for me.

She wanted to volunteer for CMTA but she was about to have foot surgery, and she assured me that she’d get back to me during or after recovery. I had no expectations, but she did indeed get back.  From this day forward, our friendship blossomed. I crept into her life like mold, and now, she’s never getting rid of me. We are stuck together like velcro.  She moved to London last year, probably hoping the distance would give her some space-WRONG. We talk frequently, Facebook tons, and I’ll be seeing her next week in Miami.

Following her then boyfriend, Josh,  to the Bay Area, California (a joke you’ll understand once you’ve read Bethany’s book), we got to know each other well. She really is not as quiet as you think when you first meet her. In fact, she’s quite chatty and holds her own in debates. From a shy, soft-spoken teen, to a master in digital communications, a successful fundraiser and a moving motivational speaker, Bethany has become a well known and loved figure in the world of CMT.

At 25, Bethany has published her first book, How Should a Body Be? which gives an intimate, honest and heartfelt portrayal of what it is like growing up with different abilities.  She’s a wonderful writer and I am in awe of her strength and “determination”  (I prefer the word stubbornness, but  Bethany’s not thrilled with that word). Here are my thoughts on Bethany’s memoir:

Bethany Meloche’s thoughtful memoir—“How Should a Body Be?”— recounts the life story of a strong-willed young woman with a never-give-up, never-look-back stance to being alive in this world. In a culture that places so much emphasis on physical perfection, many are dissatisfied with their appearance and obsess over achieving unrealistic standards of beauty and fitness. Compound these everyday societal pressures with a progressive neuromuscular disease like Charcot-Marie-Tooth—which causes foot deformities, muscle weakness, tremor and breathing difficulties—and growing up with confidence and assurance becomes that much more arduous.

With wit and humor, Bethany relates the challenges of living in a world where people’s well-intentioned, but short-sighted commentary and feedback inadvertently amplify her feelings of self-doubt, uncertainty, and isolation.

Driven by a lust for knowledge and unquenchable curiosity, Bethany lives each day to the fullest, making her story both unique and inspirational. It would have been easy for Bethany to surrender, to lose hope, to fall into the depths of despair and depression, but by turning her anger outward she discovers strength, willpower, connection and success.
“How Should a Body Be?” is a personal journey toward self-acceptance, healing and living life to its fullest, despite apparent limitations. Mature beyond her years, Bethany offers nuggets of wisdom to be shared, pondered and cherished. Honest, truthful and profoundly insightful, this book is for people with CMT, their families, their friends and anyone who struggles with self-image, confidence and the fear of being seen. This is the best book to date on growing up with physical differences, obvious or not.

 

Bottom line: Buy it. It’s that good. Buy it here:  http://amzn.to/2lBC9cz

Still not convinced? How can you say “no” to this cute face?

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“FEEL” is a 4-Letter Word

Yohan’s Foot Surgery #19

 

 

voices-funny

I hear voices. Eavesdropping, as if I were an innocent bystander, I witness the back and forth volley of words, arguments, and reasoning. Often, I put a harsh stop to the banter, for fear of losing too many precious minutes to internal disputes and emotionally draining debates. Trying to reach my neutral, rational space often feels impossible, like I’m swimming against a strong current intent on overwhelming my frantic efforts.  Yet, somehow, someway, I usually manage to quiet the noise, at least temporarily, and transition into a state of calm deliberation, frantic activity or self-imposed numbness.

Yohan had his first ever foot reconstruction surgery in June and 8 months later, he’s still not walking without using crutches or a knee scooter (see previous blog posts for the whole story). As soon as he starts to put full pressure on his foot, sores develop.

sore

 

When that happens, staying off the foot until it heals is the remedy. To offset the pressure, he had his shoes modified, new orthotics made, which were adjusted again and again and again, only to have the sore reappear when weight-bearing.  I know that all surgeries do not go as planned. You probably also know that surgeries are risky, in many, many ways. But I thought the surgeries that went awry happened to other people.  But this time, Yohan is that other person.

The holidays came and went, and in January we found ourselves at a standstill, not knowing what direction to turn. The last pictures I sent to our surgeon showed how Yohan’s foot had healed, and it did not look right.  For some reason, his heel looked misaligned, causing excessive pronation and weight distribution imbalance.  Our surgeon, Dr. Pfeffer, was perplexed, but to his credit, he’s promised to make it right. Putting ego aside, Dr. Pfeffer is determined to make the next surgery the “last surgery” by asking for second and third opinions from well-respected colleagues.  He wants to make 100% sure that no rock is left unturned before going back in to correct the lopsided foot and straighten Yohan’s toes. His humility, commitment, and compassion command our genuine respect.

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Left Foot After Surgery

Nevertheless, I dread this second surgery. I just want Yohan to be able to walk with ease, even if it is only short distances. And in all honesty, I may have felt, if only for a microsecond, discouraged, angry and saddened by all the challenges Yohan’s already faced throughout his 23 years on this planet, due to the effects of CMT. He complains rarely and manages his day-to-day with laughter, humor, and hope. Yet it is difficult to witness his debilitating fatigue, chronic pain and now, successive surgeries. I wish it weren’t so, but it is so and that’s what is true.

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In general, I tend to live in my head, not my heart. Why open up to intense emotion, when the risk is getting sucked up into a vacuum of never-ending despair and misery? When my thoughts become dark, the voices in my head try to cheer me up, scold me for being negative and/or neutralize the negative with positive thoughts. This process has become so automatic that I often no longer know what I feel inside. Many believe that raw emotions, in all their complexity, are an undeniable part of the human experience, serving as a profound source of inner guidance and direction.

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Yeah, well my inner feeling mentor acts more like a sneaky stalker than a trusted ally, ready to pounce when I am least protected. I’d rather stay in the neutral zone and avoid the war-torn areas of my life. Yet I often wonder where those intense feelings go. Do they evaporate? Remain in the body unexpressed and ignored until the pressure builds so, they just explode? Do feelings have feelings? So many questions, so few answers.

The second surgery does not yet have a date, but it will be soon, in the near future. We’re all doing our best and trying to live in the moment. We’ll get through. Thanks for listening. And if you have a moment, let me know how you cope through difficult times. You never know, your advice and feedback may just be of help to others someone else.

My Name is Not Grace

Dedicated to all my friends who have a love/hate relationship with shoes.

“I love those shoes….OMG – they are sooooo cute!” enthusiastically commented an unknown, young, attractive, athletically built woman.  I looked around, certain that she was addressing someone behind me or outside my range of vision.  Mouth hanging open, I stood stunned, realizing she was referring to my shoes, my size 12 purple and aqua blue Solomon running shoes. Managing to spit out a “Thanks!” her casual compliment rendered me speechless for all of about 5 minutes (which seemed like an eternity…..to me).

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Above: The Complimented Shoes 

 

The last time someone actually told me they liked my shoes was back in September of 1967. I was 5 and my mom had just bought me a pair of black, shiny patent leather shoes. The compliments I received! Overjoyed with my new shoes I ran, jumped, danced and then, never fail, I slipped on our hardwood floors, landing head first into the electric radiator, at the base of the wall. As blood gushed from the gash on my forehead, a cloth was applied to the wound where it stayed until we reached the ER. The stitches left a small scar above my left eyebrow, a foreboding symbol of future foot-related misery.

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Above: Me, Age 5, Patent Leather Shoes

Nevertheless, I had not yet received the memo about imminent foot woes, so when my mom had to order new and very expensive shoes and winter boots from a shop in Montreal because my instep was so high, I thought that I was really something special.  Although I hadn’t a clue as to what a high instep actually was, I didn’t care. I felt like a princess who needed the best of what money could buy, and from abroad, to boot (a 2-hour drive from my hometown of Burlington, VT).  “I could get used to a life of royalty-Queen Elizabeth,” I imagined, my illusions of grandeur already a problem at such a young age. The thrill of ordering our butler around, “Andrew, Caviar, please! “or “I’ll wear the dazzling rubies this evening, Alfred! Snap, snap…I haven’t got all day!”

As I grew taller, my feet inevitably grew longer. By 8th grade, I was at least 5’7’ and my feet already demanded a size 10 shoe. Long-limbed and gawky, I looked like a baby flamingo and walked like a newborn giraffe learning to take its first steps. Between the giraffe and the flamingo, I must have looked a lot like a fliraffe.

 

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Above: Baby Flamingo

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Above: Baby Giraffe

 

 

 

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Above: Fliraffe (a giraffe with baby flamingo feet)

 

If my parents had named me Grace, I would have been a laughing stock! It was bad enough with older brothers who had their own nicknames for me: clumsy, klutz, horse, big foot, clod, butterfingers, spazz, etc. I was always bumping into something and spent a  lot of time on the ground, either cleaning up something I had spilled or nursing wounded knees.

If you have CMT, you may be able to relate to my story and have a few of your own. Does this sound familiar? I fall over air, get caught up in my own feet, trip up stairs, run into furniture and constantly drop things. Here are just a few concrete examples which come to mind: I dropped my cell in public toilets, twice, got my bike tire caught in the rails of a tram, and just simply fell over onto my side in the middle of a busy plaza, tripped on nothing and everything, sprained ankles, broken toes and sported many, many bruises. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, as the list is way too long and the catastrophes, too many to count.

Many of my friends in high school and college wore high heeled shoes for events. Not me. At 5’9’’ I was already taller than the majority of other students, especially the guys. Secondly, a size 10 high heeled shoe was impossible to find and third, I would have broken my neck.  And have you ever found a sample size 6 or 7 shoe at the store, and when they brought out the size 10 or 11, it looked nothing at all like the size 7 you had already fallen in love with?

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Above: The shoes I wanted (floor model,size 7)

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Above: The shoes they brought out (size 12)

When I lived in France, the saleswoman wore a look of shock and disgust when I gave her my shoe size. As if being forced to wait on the Hunchback of Notre Dame, she nervously whimpered, “Madame, s’il vous plaît, look in zee secshun for zee man,” and she pointed in the direction of the men’s shoe department. How humiliating.

By adding padded and ultra cushy orthotics, my shoe size increased by 1 or 2 sizes!! On my body, an 11 or 12 shoe is not feminine. It just isn’t. I walk more like Herman Munster than a tall woman with long legs and big feet.

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Above: My body and feet

So when my new best friend complimented me on my “cute” shoes, I decided to take the compliment and wear it with pride. And, honestly, I am just grateful to be able to walk. Some are not so lucky. So, I say screw femininity.  The older I get, the less I care about what people think, especially if it is negative. Now give me positive commentary, and that my friends, is a different ball of wax.