Author: Hillary Savoie

Mother’s Day gifts

rare-diseaseMother’s Day 2010: I watch as my mother unwraps the first of her presents. It is pair of pretty handmade slippers. She is pleased. I am anxious, though. As I watch her sweetly looking over the slippers, I try to resist the urge to push the next package toward her and demand she open it immediately.

I quite literally sit on my hands to keep myself in check.

When she finally unwraps the second package, I watch the confusion on her face as it settles into a hopeful realization. She holds up the tiny little slippers and asks, “Are you?” I smile and nod, tears welling up in my eyes, “It is really early mom, but we wanted you to know … Happy Mother’s Day!”

I am four weeks pregnant, expecting my first child, my mother’s first grandchild. I can already imagine what it will feel like, one year later, celebrating my first Mother’s Day. Mom and I will sit under the big umbrella our faces and arms in the shade, our feet in the sun. We’ll pass the baby back and forth, laughing and talking about this baby’s future. We’ll walk around mom’s gardens and admire the flowers. We’ll already be a little clan: mom, me and my baby girl — she will be a girl, I just know it.

I am right. The little tiny bundle of cells and joy growing inside me is a little girl, just as I imagined.

But, also, she is already unbelievably different than I ever could have imagined.

Mother’s Day 2011: I glance over my sleeping three-month-old daughter Esmé. I take her in completely — her full head of dark hair, her pouty lips, her dimpled hands. For a moment I swim in the calm of watching her little chest rising and falling rhythmically — in and out, in and out.

After a beat, I snap to, scanning the lines running from her, glancing over the IV, oxygen and monitors. I have the same thought I have had every morning for the last week: She made it through another night.

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Blur: Inside my life as the parent of a child with a rare disease

rare disease
Hillary holds Esmé at their home in New York-Tracey Buyce Photography

Looking through the photos I took of my daughter this morning — her in her pajamas leaning back against my thighs, my bare feet in the tangle of blankets in the background — I remember there are so many things about being a mother that are exactly as I imagined: The awe I feel when I look at my daughter, Esmé. The love I sense when I stare into her beautiful deep blue eyes. The pride that blossoms when I sink my fingers into her unruly curls, claiming her as my very own.

The feeling that I have never, ever belonged to another person as I belong to Esmé.

But there is something else there as well. It is present in each of the photos from this morning: The blurs created by her hands as they flap in the air, by her head as she shakes it back and forth, by her legs as she rhythmically pounds her heels to a beat only she understands.

These blurs are the contrails of her stereotypies, her choreoathetoid movement disorder, her flailing attempts at communication. They are the intangible made visible, photographic reminders that being Esmé’s mother is also nothing at all like I expected. They are the evidence of the blur I struggle to articulate: how the fear and pain associated with my daughter’s rare diseases can co-exist with the tremendous gifts that have come out of her conditions.

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Palliative care: Not just end of life care

Hillary and EsmeMy daughter Esmé is a four-and-one-half-year-old girl who loves listening to “The Muppets Movie” soundtrack, laughing at silly jokes and reading books. Esmé has been a patient at Boston Children’s Hospital since she was 8 months old, when she started seeing the Aerodigestive Clinic for chronic aspiration. She is followed by a number of specialists to treat her epilepsy, low tone, kidney and heart abnormalities, developmental delay, poor growth, lack of verbal communication, among other things. Esmé is presumed to have a genetic disorder, but, so far, she does not have a clear diagnosis.

Last week I had an appointment that I was both really looking forward to and dreading, simultaneously. The appointment was with Pediatric Advanced Care Team (PACT) at Boston Children’s. They are the group who does palliative care there.

Now, I know that most people hear “palliative care” and think very specific things about end of life care.

I did, certainly.

And, frankly, my associations with palliative care were enough to make me not want to have the meeting with them in the first place.

However, we have reached that place in Esmé’s care where, while she much more stable than ever, there are some roadblocks that affect her (and our family’s) quality of life. Several of my mom friends who also have children with similar needs suggested that it might be time to talk to palliative care.

I said, “No. Absolutely not.”

Palliative care and stress relief

But, after my knee-jerk reaction, I thought it might be smart to see if my understanding of palliative care was, in fact, accurate. And it wasn’t. Palliative care is “specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses. It focuses on providing patients with relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family.

Wow, right? Obviously Ez has a serious illness. And, I’m sure this will surprise all of you, but there is stress (oh, God the stress …). While palliative care can be a method used in conjunction with end of life concerns, it is fundamentally focused on living–living happily and comfortably despite on-going serious health challenges. And, because we are in this for the longterm, it seems like improving Esmé’s quality of life–and the quality of life of our family unit–is sort of a no-brainer…

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