Stories about: rare disease

Show your stripes: Living with a rare disease

Child in a zebra suit with a teddy bear
PHOTO: ADOBE STOCK

It’s Rare Disease Day, time to wear your stripes to raise awareness about rare diseases and the effect they have on patients’ lives. Just as the zebra’s stripes are unique in the animal kingdom, those with a rare disease are also unique, though not alone.

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What can I do if there is no approved treatment for my child’s rare disease?

Just one tough question of many asked — and answered — during a social media Q+A held in observation of this year’s Rare Disease Day on February 28. Rare disease specialists, patients and advocates from across the country took to Twitter to offer their firsthand advice for dealing with a newly-diagnosed (or undiagnosable) rare disease. 

If your or your child’s rare disease does not yet have a treatment option, you can get involved in natural history research…

Over Twitter, our story headline and other questions were posed by the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) and The Mighty, a digital health community that empowers and connects people who are facing disease or disability. Dr. Phillip Pearl, who directs Epilepsy and Clinical Neurophysiology and studies inherited metabolic epilepsies at Boston Children’s Hospital, offered his recommendations through a series of tweets from the @BostonChildrens Twitter account.

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First a birthmark, then a rare-disease diagnosis

Brielle, who has Sturge-Weber syndrome, peers over a wooden fence as she plays outside
Brielle plays near her home in Rhode Island.

Two-year-old Brielle Coutu loves listening to music, dancing and eating enough cheese that her mother, Heather, often wonders aloud, “Are you a mouse?” Brielle loves to play outside and is usually a chatty, happy-go-lucky little girl. But, sometimes, she can be overwhelmed by the excitement of gathering with family and friends.

“We think she has some sensory sensitivities related to her Sturge-Weber syndrome,” says Heather.

Brielle was born with what’s known as a port-wine birthmark on her face. It is aptly named for its dark reddish color. Port-wine birthmarks can be present on otherwise healthy babies. But Heather and her husband, Justin, quickly learned that this type of birthmark can alternatively be symptomatic of a worrisome underlying condition.

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Superheros, specialists and sidekicks

service dogSporting a Superman sock on her left foot and Batman on her right, Bella Burton, a 12-year-old from Woburn, Massachusetts, listens intently to her orthopedic surgeon Dr. Lawrence Karlin. Lots of people mix up their socks, he tells her. “You should really stand out from the crowd. Wear unmatched shoes.”

She chuckles and pretends to ponder his advice. Ultimately, Bella decides against Karlin’s fashion tips.

The exchange is typical of Bella and Karlin, says her mother Rachel.

The pair first met in 2007 at the Boston Children’s Hospital Orthopedic Center when Bella was just a toddler. Genetic experts suspected Bella had Morquio syndrome, a rare birth defect whose symptoms include abnormal bone and spine development and possible heart and vision problems.

As Bella underwent genetic testing, Rachel and her husband Ed faced a flutter of uncertainty. “We were so new to Boston Children’s, and Bella’s diagnosis wasn’t confirmed.”

Genetic testing confirmed Bella did have Morquio, which meant she needed a slew of additional specialists — in clinical genetics, pulmonology, cardiology, neurology and more.

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