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Thinking Zebras

Hear Hoofbeats? Think Zebras

I don’t know where that phrase originated in the rare disease community, but I love it. If we are going to take this even further, I am probably a zebra with extremely funky and unique stripes as I’ve managed to get myself a collection of unrelated rare diseases.

Thinking zebras is important for the Moebius syndrome community. Individuals with Moebius syndrome and their families have to be innovative, think outside of the box to problem solve difficulties and develop the mentality that being a metaphorical zebra is okay.

Thinking zebras is important for me, and for others living with rare diseases. Life with rare diseases oftentimes necessitates ingenuity, creativity and adaptability. To be able to think outside the box when one hears the metaphorical hoofbeats is crucial for quality of life.

Thinking zebras is important for the community when encountering rare disorders. There are more than seven thousand rare disorders, with advanced genomics discovering even more disorders every day. I personally don’t fault anyone for not knowing about all of them, but hope for kindness, empathy and support for those of us with rare diseases.

Thinking zebras is important for the healthcare community, especially for rare diseases where there is no known genetic cause. We still rely on clinical diagnoses, which may not come, may be incorrect, or may simply just take entirely too long to arrive at.

Thinking zebras is important for allies of the rare disease community, who wonder how they can help us raise awareness and mobilize.

Thinking zebras is important for researchers in rare diseases. The theme of Rare Disease Day this year is With Research Possibilities Are Limitless, but research into rare diseases is often frustrating and sometimes fruitless (see: Moebius syndrome research, where they have not found anything genetic yet!)

So next time you hear hoofbeats, look carefully as the zebras gallop by.

 

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The elusive cure

This is the text of my 2016 Stanford MedicineX Ignite talk.

 

An estimated one in three hundred thousand to one in a million people are born with Moebius syndrome. I am one of those ones.

The defining symptom of Moebius is facial paralysis — people with Moebius cannot fully smile, frown, move their eyebrows or move their eyes laterally, and many have limb differences and neuromuscular issues. There is currently no known cause for classic Moebius syndrome, and there is no cure beyond surgeries, therapies to alleviate the major symptoms.

Since Moebius syndrome is a rare disorder, I spend time with the rare disease community – supporting things like Rare Disease Day, GiveRare fundraising day, and assorted other dedicated days.

But sometimes I don’t feel like I belong. I’m not one of those who can hope for a cure.

A cure makes a good headline. A cure is a finite resolution. And researching cures for rare diseases can unlock clues about how to treat patients with more common diseases, which is one motivating factor why pharma companies are interested.

What I hope for is a new system that values support, relationships and learning from peer-to-peer networks the same way we value the elusive cure.

Moebius syndrome patients rely on eye medications, breathing medications, g tube and tracheostomy supplies, orthotics, dental interventions, strong prescription sunglasses since we cannot blink or squint in the sun. We definitely spend entirely too much on medical things. But we apparently aren’t exciting enough. Large pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in providing information to patients, or donating to family conferences, or even in donating something as simple as a eye drops. Why?

Is the lack of payoff for an uncurable disorder not enough to justify supporting it?

How can we make improving quality of life – through both pharmaceutical and social interventions – as coveted as a cure? Studies have shown that social support is vital for people living with Moebius syndrome, and is life-changing for the nearly 100 people with Moebius syndrome and almost 300 family and friends who gather at our conferences.

It is often the first or only time every two years where their differences are normal. And that is invaluable.

The symptoms of Moebius syndrome can lead to tremendously awkward and sometimes offensive interactions where assumptions are made by appearance alone. A few months ago as I was toileting my service dog in my apartment’s courtyard, a man walked up to me and out of the blue asked me if I was on Section 8, because of the way I look. I was too shocked to come up with an intelligent comeback besides “no” as I hurriedly threw dog poop in the trash. Everyone with Moebius syndrome, or any visible disability, has had those moments. And they sting.

But rare isn’t so rare when there are 100 of you.

How might we value hope. support and relationships and learning the same way we value the elusive cure? Moebius syndrome can lead to these painful interactions, but it can also lead to resilience, creativity and strong connections. How might we value and prize the social connections and the power of community as much as we value a cure? How do you put a monetary worth on something unquantifiable?

Moebius syndrome will not be cured in the traditional sense. Missing cranial nerves and  skeletal anomalities cannot be solved by a pill. And that is what it is.

So how might we advocate for increased industry support for patients where – while they rely on pharmaceuticals to improve, but not change, their lives – the main change will come from within? Is a change aided peripherally but not defined by pharma interventions worth investing in?

For those of us who are living it, yes.

Instead of hope for a cure, for me and others with incurable conditions, hope is the state of mind fostered by a strong community who knows and accepts the fact that not all things in life can be cured. Hope comes through connections, resources, strength and time, instead of in a pill. But hope is as valuable as a cure.

And some memories in photo form from the weekend.

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Conference journeys

 
Last weekend, I attended a planning meeting for the 12th Moebius Syndrome Foundation Conference. As always, it’s lots of work with big rewards at the end… but can I reiterate, lots of work. It’s familiar work, though. I know the rhythms, the questions, the work I have to do. It is a long hallway with crazy purple carpet, but I know (mostly) where it will lead me.

I guess that is what I am both most looking forward to – and a bit nervous about – at my first time at MedX this fall. I’m excited, but that is tempered by the fact that I feel a tad bit inadequately prepared for this. 

Yes, I love social media and using social media to connect with others within the Moebius syndrome community and the rare disorders community… I’m just hoping that’s enough to make me not feel completely like a fish out of water! At least I hope so!

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Channeling Pride

I ended up in San Francisco yesterday for the first night of the American Library Association Annual Conference, listening to everyone buzzing about the SCOTUS decision and their plans for the weekend. I think the concept of pride as a movement is amazing, and a reminder to channel my own disability pride. I mean, I’m active – sometimes too active! – in the Moebius syndrome and Canine Companions community, but does that mean I actually have pride? Do I wear it proudly like a huge splashy rainbow? I don’t know. Sometimes I think I don’t, then sometimes I think I shouldn’t have to then sometimes I think I am failing everyone (lord knows who ‘everyone’ is!) for not being prideful or active enough. That is the paradox of being from a minority group that is diverse and doesn’t have the cultural cohesiveness of other minority groups. I go days without encountering someone with a (visible) disability, months or years without encountering someone with my rare condition. I get complacent. I sometimes, honestly, don’t care anymore. Then I see something – the Hearing Dog graduation I watched on my phone before the opening session yesterday, a new family discovering the online Moebius syndrome community, and am reminded that I do actually have a lot of pride. The rare disorder community and the service dog community are pretty darn incredible. I need to step back, and to have more pride in these groups… and in myself.

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SufferIng

In case you ever need to know, the sure-fire way to seriously piss me off is to tell me that I am suffering from Moebius syndrome.

The people of Nepal are suffering. People and families who are going hungry or experiencing great trauma are suffering.

I am living, not suffering.

Yeah, it sounds like I’m just being really picky… but for me, and for many others living with chronic conditions of all kinds, that distinction defines so much. It defines how you approach me, how you approach the fact that I happen to have a rare medical condition.

If (the general) you approach my having Moebius syndrome as suffering, I immediately feel on guard. On guard for what, I’m not sure – pity? condescenting-ness? mid-understandings?

Perhaps I need to work on seeing the other side of things and think in terms of educational opportunities and different life experiences and such… but I don’t always have the energy for that.

I’m too busy living with Moebius syndrome. 

 

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A Preview of Rare Disease Day 2014

My dog’s getting into the spirit of the day! Actually, he just really likes to hold things so I capitalized on that in this instance. Tomorrow I’m going to Sacramento, CA with many other rare disease advocates from across the state, along with the National Organization for Rare Disorders and the Global Genes Project. We’re not going on Friday the 28th (which is Rare Disease Day) because the legislature is not in session then… so we’re being prompt! I’m really excited to see what we can do collaboratively to advocate the cause of rare disease funding, care and research.

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A Preview of Rare Disease Day 2014

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