Category Archives: worth of the disabled

I most feel like a parent when the kids are sick

Most of my fondest memories of my parents come from when I was sick-sick, or in the hospital, or the doctor’s office.

I mean, Dad did that “typical father” stuff, like teaching me Shakespeare at 8 and preparing me for the SAT at 9.

Mom and I had great conversations in the car going to school or running errands. And she used to buy writing journals back in PA, and we would sit at Presque Isle State Park or just in our house and write, and sometimes if I was lucky, she’d share her poems with me.

Yet the first thing that comes to mind of my childhood in general, and certainly with my parents, was doctors’ offices, tests, hospitals, or just in bed with a cold or flu. After all, that was the time when it was just me with Mom and/or Dad: nothing and no one else in the way.

I have a collection of “Mary Pictures.” I keep it on my phone, my laptop, and all the desktops. I made a video of it. One of my favorite pictures was taken at my nephew’s birthday when we were engaged, and I was having chestpain, and Mary was still in the “this is all new to me, so I’m gonna panic every time he has pain” stage. I was laying there on the sofa having chest pain.

It’s something that, prior to Mary, I did quite often, but it was always one of my deep emotional pains that my body kept me from participating in so much of the “basics” of life, and I spent so much time alone in the other room. So Mary was sitting there next to me on the couch, holding my hand, and someone took a picture, and I love that picture.

So, as a husband and a father, I feel like it’s my chance to “give back” when someone’s sick. Sadly, especially in the past couple years, I’m not much use to Mary when she’s sick, especially if I’m sick at the same time. But she also might not even know about certain underlying health conditions she has if we weren’t so aware of those matters because of me.

Her POTS, mitral valve prolapse and afibrillation would still be “just laziness” or “just fatigue” if she didn’t have me to confirm, “Yeah, that pain you’re having sounds cardiological. Go to the hospital.” Ironically, just a month before she went to the hospital and found out about her heart condition 2 years ago, I had been laying my head on her chest and thinking how nice it was to hear a “normal” heart beat. I felt like I cursed her.

Allie picked up very quickly on what a bonding experience the doctor’s office is, especially since I presented it to her that way.

She had her first echocardiogram (discounting one when she was a newborn) a month or so before Mary’s first sonogram with Gianna. They let her sit in on the sonogram since she’d already had an echo (for those who don’t know; it’s the same machine; just pointed in a different spot), and she already knew how to behave at a doctor’s office. After watching her sister’s sonograms, it also made her more comfortable with her echo.

She often accompanies me when I take her siblings to the doctor or the hospital and, with one exception, she’s always been a big help, and she’s always impressed the doctors.

Then there’s Gianna, the little nurse. She’s not as adamant about her life plans as she used to be, but we still tell her she’d be a great nurse if that’s what she chooses to do.

I will always remember Allie’s first major stomach bug when she was a one year old, which was I think the first time I took her to the pediatrician for a “sick visit.” I will always remember having to give the pediatrician a detailed description of what was in her diaper–never in a million years thought I’d be able to tackle that task. When she was born, the nurse laughed at me for wearing a mask and gloves while learning how to change a diaper (of course, in addition to the whole “grossed out” thing, I was also extremely paranoid at the time about my valve and infection).

I’ve always said my real “parental boot camp” came when Allie was a little over a year old. We all slept in the same room, and we kept the baby gate up in case she woke up. She knew how to walk, and she had just learned how to take off her own diaper. I woke up to discover that she had already woken up, taken off her diaper, and made a big mess with what was inside it. I had to clean the bed, the bedclothes, the carpet and the kid.

I was also used to being able to call the cavalry in such situations. I called Mary’s aunt. I called her parents. No one answered. When I finally got in touch with someone, it was her sister: “I can’t come over; I’m at the hospital because Mom’s had a heart attack.–But dad says not to tell Mary at school.” So now I had to clean all that stuff up on my own without Allie getting into further trouble *and* get her dressed so we could go to the hospital and find out what was happening with my mother in law.

Somehow, I did it, and I felt like I’d “arrived.”

Then Gianna and Joe came along with their severe food sensitivities. . . . Another permanent memory is the time when Gianna had some kind of accident on Allie’s favorite doll, “Gillian”–which she had received from my sister the previous Christmas. Mary was like, “The doll is ruined. Throw it out!” Allie was crying. I put it in the bathroom, cleaned up the rest of the mess, threw stuff in the wash, then went back to the bathroom and used shampoo, baking soda, Oxy-Clean and elbow grease till Gillian looked like a bright new doll.

Then there was her first stomach bug as a preschooler. I was working my job in Springfield at the time, and I had to go in on Saturday morning. They’d said it was OK to bring your kids on those Saturdays, and Allie had been looking forward to it.

So Friday night, woke up in the middle of the night, throwing up. I slept on the couch; she slept on the recliner. Mary and the other two at the time stayed upstairs. Next day, she went with me to work and mostly hid under my desk. Late in the morning, she was hungry, so I got her some crackers and pretzels from the vending machine, but I insisted she try ginger ale. “I’ve already drank water,” she said. “When did you do that?” I asked. “I got up in the middle of the night and got myself a glass of water, and I held it down OK.” That’s Allie.

Three eye surgeries for Allie. A broken arm for Gianna. Another broken arm for Joe. The common cold, influenza, bronchitis, allergies, etc. Gianna’s gastroenterological tests. Allie’s various physicians. Helping Allie through her “Marfan milestones”: her first knee dislocation, her first chest pain, . . . And the thing she has that I don’t have, that worries her mother and me to death, her pectus excavatum. Every year, they test it and tell us it’s “fine” (meaning they don’t want to operate yet). Yet when you put your arms around the kid, you can feel how frail her little ribs are. She doesn’t like being hugged because it hurts. Sometimes, I lay my hand on her chest, and I feel that indentation so deep I can put my fist through it, and I wonder how there’s any room in her chest at all, and I just want to cry for her.

Then there was the time Mary called me in a panic. Allie had said, matter of factly, as she so often does these things, that she couldn’t see anything in her right eye. I came rushing home, fearing retinal detachment. I did some informal tests. I called her cardiologist and her ophthalmologist. I ruled out retinal detachment, but I got her an emergency visit to the ophthalmologist, and he said the zonules on her right lens were so loose that, while the lens wasn’t dislocated, it wasn’t focusing at all anymore, so it was completely obscuring her vision. It took three surgeries and two years to get that lens out of the way, and by then it was almost too late.

I have a problem where Allie’s care is concerned: I’m the first to want to get whatever the best things for her I can get. Technology has improved a lot in the last 20 years, and I want her to have the opportunities I didn’t for care that didn’t exist then. However, I also know what it’s like to be a “guinea pig,” and I know what it’s like to suffer side effects and complications that are sometimes worse than the problem. And I know what the stress of all this stuff is like, and how all the different things going inside the Marfan body come together to drive one crazy.

Being a Marfan is like being a patient on “House”. They give you a drug for your heart, and the drug, in conjunction with the Marfan, screws up your intestines and lungs. They give you a physical therapy method for your hips, and it makes your knees dislocate. They give you at therapy for your knees, and it makes your back hurt. They give you a therapy for your back, and it makes your hips hurt. . . .

I’m very cautious about giving her cures that may be worse than disease, or putting her through therapies that might give her undue stress, because, on the one hand, I know exactly what she’s going through. On the other, unlike her father, the kid never complains . She only complains when she’s about ready for the hospital, and if she’s not feeling well, the only way she ever shows it is by lashing out.

We used to have a regular thing. We get into the habit and then somehow get out of it. It’s called, “If a kid’s being exceptionally crabby, give ’em some Tylenol.” Allie has headaches all the time, because of her vision, and everything else, and she doesn’t stop to say, “Hey, Mom and Dad. I have a headache.” She just gets crabby and uncooperative. When we’re smart, and we think, “Maybe she has a headache,” we offer her a Tylenol, she accepts it, and after a little while, she’s sweet and cooperative again.

Over the three years we lived in Columbia, I got to know several of the ER nurses, between my own visits, and the fact that I was always the designated parent for taking the kids. And nurses shift duties and hospitals. So, one time we have a nurse in triage who’s the room nurse the next time. Or we’re at a different hospital, and a nurse says, “Don’t I know you from somewhere! Oh, yeah! You’re the Marfan dad!” Or a nurse will say, “How’s Gianna’s arm?” “How’s Allie?”

I bring all this up because Joe fell this evening. It was pretty scary. We had gotten home from running errands. I was getting the grocery bags together. Mary and the kids ran in the house because the kids had to go to the bathroom (they sit all day and go hours on end between potty breaks; as soon as we leave the house, though, they need to go every 10 minutes). For some reason, Joe and Clara decided to run outside and play “Scooby Doo” in the dark. From inside the car, I heard them come running out, saw them run towards the front yard, and was just about to yell at them to go back in the house or get over to the car when
I saw and heard Joe take a bad fall.
He was crying. “Are you all right?” “No!” I came running over, and he was already on his feet. He toddled himself into the house and laid down on the futon. While everyone crowded around him, I unloaded the groceries. Then I knelt down beside him, cleaned his wounds, put on band aids, stroked his head, and talked to him gently. At first, all he said was that his arm hurt all over–and it was the arm he broke last year.

It didn’t look broken, and after talking to him about it, I got him to explain that his hand and wrist hurt, and he had fallen on his hand. I put ice on it for a while, and Mary took him to the ER, and she said they were great, and they said it’s probably not even a sprain but just a bruise.

But there was something special in that time. As terrifying as it was, it was also a special bonding moment for me, to kneel there in the den and tend to my little guy, stroking his head and talking to him. English 101 textbooks like to include an essay that E. B. White wrote about taking his son to the cabin that he used to go to with his father, and how the time seemed to blend and invert.

Something like that happens when I’m tending to my kids in their infirmities, especially the most drastic ones. It’s like I channel my mother. As I comfort my own child, I find myself a child again, being comforted by my Mom.

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On “Doing Fine,” “Being OK” and “Feeling Better.”

No, I’m not.

Never have.

Never will.

And “never will” doesn’t mean I don’t believe God may give me a miracle. He has given me many miracles, which is why I’m still alive today. However, I consider everything a miracle. I consider my aortic dissection itself a miracle.

Thank You, Father.

Forgive my ingratitude.

But as for “doing fine”? “Being OK”? “Feeling Better”?

Those are abstract concepts that have more to do with the questioner’s peace of mind than the respondant’s situation.

People want you to tell them you’re “fine” so *they* can stop worrying.

Problem is: the problems are here. Some of them have always been here.

I took a gamble. 14.5 years ago, I had a surgery that I didn’t really want to go through with. I had prayed for many years for God to miraculously intervene and prove His power before the doctors could do anything. I worried that, if I went through with the surgery, I might be denying God’s power to heal me. I just wanted to go to Heaven, though I also knew that I wasn’t spiritually ready yet, but I had to keep up appearances.

After the surgery, they told me I’d “be fine.” They told me I could stop living the way I’d always done and start exercising, and enjoying life a bit.

Actually, after the surgery, the surgeon told my parents that, now that the aorta had been grafted once, I could have a dissection at any time. I had already known this from my reading and paying attention at all those NMF conferences my parents took me to, and it was one of the reasons I didn’t want the surgery.

However, I bought the life of “You’re fine.” I got an apartment on campus for my senior year. I began walking for an hour a day. I really was enjoying it.

Then I developed some tearing around the stitches of my valve, and was back to sedentary.

Then those tears scarred over, and I sought out equilibrium. Still doctors, and my parents, encouraged me to walk, to try things, to not use the wheelchair, etc.

I met Mary.

We had kids.

In those early years of our marriage and parenthood, I was the healthiest I’ve ever been. I still had chest pain and stuff, but everything was remarkably stable, and I had more stamina than I had ever had previously or since.

I even made it to full time employment, and Mary got to be a stay at home mom for over a year.

I pushed myself too hard. Icarus flew too close to the sun.

At first, even before that full time job, I started having really bad headaches, with numbness in my face and legs. There are neurological problems associated with Marfan syndrome, so I went up to Hopkins to see a neurologist and a spine expert. They said my problems were not consistent with dural ectasia, and my tests did not show any evidence of it.

As time went on, and the headaches and spells became more acute, I realized they were TIAs–transitory ischemic attacks. I tried to get checked for those, and had a brain CT which showed nothing. I was told “It’s just stress. Get better sleep.” Eventually, I found out that TIAs which recur daily like I had them were more indicative of a brain aneurysm, but I also knew brain aneurysms were hard to detect. My cardiologist agreed and suggested we start medicating as if I had one.

Throughout this process, in 2006, I also developed a new aneurysm in my thoracic aorta.

When an angiogram in 2009 finally found the brain aneurysm, it also found a tortuous and redundant carotid artery and a “venous ectasia” (kind of like an aneurysm, only in a vein and not an artery). The more I researched these, I figured out my TIAs were actually caused when my BP was high, and blood was trying to force itself through the maze of my right carotid artery (like water through a hose with a kink in it).

And, after about 5 years of being relatively healthy, I had declined a bit more quickly than I’d ever anticipated.

Our prayer had always been for me to find full time work, so Mary could stay home with the kids and we could hire some kind of assistant, whether someone to assist with the housekeeping,the kids, our household management, or our medical concerns.

I worked and worked at various part time jobs to try and make ends meet. I overworked myself. I lost jobs either because of my health or working too many jobs at once or both.

We constantly struggled. We accumulated debt. We accumulated debt because I wasn’t strong enough, especially in a townhouse, to take care of the kids and the housekeeping and cooking and work all these jobs. So we ate out far too much. We accumulated debt because, while our income was sufficient to pay the monthly bills (including any eating out), life is more than monthly bills. Cars needed repaired. Medical bills needed paid. Relatives wanted us to visit. Job interviews would present themselves. Car taxes.

Then I would not get enough classes, or I’d lose a job, or whatever, and our income would drop. Each of the last 3 years, I’ve ended up without any classes in January, and the tax return money–intended to get ahead on our debts–ended up going towards living expenses.

But we kept trusting things would work out. I finally had an interview for a potential full time job. They loved me. They told me I’d start in October. We found a fantastic handicapped one story ranch to rent and moved so I’d be ready for the job. The job didn’t materialize. They froze the position.

So here we were, in a new home that solved a lot of our problems in itself, yet we had several others to deal with.

Financial security had been in our grasp, and we lost it. That was OK, we said, because my current jobs were bringing in enough money. Then I didn’t get assigned as many classes because of restructuring. So I applied for two more adjunct jobs and got them, just before Christmas, one of them on campus.

Then my aorta dissected.

So, how am I doing?
1) My aorta is stabilized, but that doesn’t mean I’m fine. It means I have to do everything I can to avoid stress and avoid raising my blood pressure so my aorta doesn’t dissect again. It means I’m going to be on heavy blood pressure medicines and pain killers. Now, instead of 8 diagnosed potential causes of sudden death, I now have 11.

2) I am giving up driving. That is going to considerably cripple my family, but we’ll get rid of our second car, which will reduce our monthly bills by over $500.

3) I am going to appreciate life a bit more and stop putting off important stuff. I’m going to stop hoping for something better and make do. I’m going to trust God to help us with the bills.

4) I’ve always needed help with the kids, but hopefully, if people don’t buy into “I’m OK,” they’ll be willing to give it. This drastic change in the situation has us considering Catholic school–if we can get some kind of charitable scholarship. Otherwise, I’m going to need volunteer help with the kids, at least a few hours a day. In the meantime, the grandparents are helping out.

5) After we find some ways to seriously cut corners, I’m going to try to keep teaching a minimum number of classes, and I’m going to start applying SSDI. In the meantime, I’m going to apply for South Carolina’s Working Disabled Medicaid program, since my dissection qualifies me for both programs.

6) Sometime in the next 3 years, I will need a replacement of my entire aorta. It may be in 6 months; it may be in 3 years; it may be next week.

7) I’m happy and content and at peace with God and my family. Other than my parental concerns about money and my children’s education and care, I have no worries.

Have a Heart: Actor Vincent Schiavelli

Vincent Schiavelli was not only one of our most noted “celebrity Marfans,” but in the Marfan community he’s known for his generosity in reaching out to other Marfans, particularly children, and giving them his time and attention.

May he rest in peace.

Have a Heart: NMF Statement to SSA, updated

Back in the mid-1990s, the Marfan community was excited that Marfan syndrome finally made it into the Social Security Administration’s official list of disabling conditions.

However, the listing was for untreated aortic dissection. In other words, your aorta dissects, and you’re eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security disability for the day or so before you die or have it operated on. OK, there are some people who have dissections that they have to live with for indefinite periods of time, for various reasons.

However, the point is that it’s a very limiting criteria. This is a written statement to the SSA, dated, November 28, 2007, by one Dr. Josephine Grima, representing the National Marfan Foundation, asking the SSA to take into account the systematic effects of Marfan.

The following two sentences sum up my life:

Each major “incident” translates into non-productive years, disrupted or discarded careers, lost wages and assets, and an emotional and psychological disconnect and alienation from society. Couple this with the specter of early death and the resulting angst and pervasive depression that ensues further
debilitates the patient.

I most firmly believe that the worth of a person has nothing to do with how much money he or she can make, or with utilitarian contributions to society. When it comes to my personal life and spiritual life, I am quite happy. “You’re rich in the economy of grace,” as a friend recently said to me.

However, when it comes to survival in this cutthroat world, it’s a different story. I’ve worked hard all my life to always come just short, always not having quite as many qualifications as other candidates for scholarships, awards and jobs, always getting high praise for my intelligence and work ethic but never quite able to advance beyond a basic level job when I do have work, and always getting the riot act when my disability invariably gets in the way of my work.

A year ago, I began working on the _Hide Me In Your Wounds_ CD in the hopes of taking my career into my own hands. Self-marketing has proven challenging as a I have to work so many hours as an adjunct college instructor to make ends meet, and I thought I could have success with the “guerilla”/”buzz” marketing approach through my blog and Facebook.

Please download Hide Me In Your Wounds today.  The more copies I can sell through direct marketing, the more money and time I can spend on advertising, publicity and working on getting some of my other works published.

Have a Heart: Paganini Could do amazing things with the violin because he was a Marfan

Have a Heart: Allie again

More pictures of a girl who, according to the experts, should have been sacrificed to IVF, a Petri Dish and dissection for ESCR purposes to “save her from suffering”:


Age 6, an old fashioned phone booth at the Museum with Gianna and Joe.


Also Age 6, with Gianna and Joe

Age 7, MOVES class recital (dance class for disabled kids at Columbia College–great program!)

Age 7, self-portrait


Age 3 (close to 4) , holding Josef

Pray with Allie on Hide Me In Your Wounds.

Have a Heart: A Marfan Love Story

UPDATE: I had previously linked our story from the Ave Maria Singles website, but they have recently apparently taken down their “Success Stories” page.

Here’s where you can order the We Met Online Ave Maria singles book (we’re in it).

Here’s the issue of Canticle Magazine where Mary published our story.