Bowling With Friends

Recently, we went to a friend’s kid’s birthday party at a bowling alley. Of course, I had to bowl, too. In the lane next to me was a boy named Brody. He had a tiny, wiry frame and thick, black glasses. When we went for the same ball, he spoke to me but I wasn’t sure what he said. I asked him to tell me again and he repeated himself but I still didn’t get it. His mother who was standing behind him came over and told me it was okay if I didn’t understand him. She helped him get his ball and guided him back to the bowling ramp.

The kid was a machine. He bowled ball after ball, sending one down the lane and then excitedly waiting for it to return up the chute. It was always the same pearl-colored ball, the same adjustment of the ramp, and the same smile.

When the pizza arrived and the other kids sat down to eat, Brody kept bowling. His mother would stick a piece of pizza in front of his face, he’d take a bite, then put his ball up on the ramp. It was like watching an endurance athlete compete with a trainer by his side giving him fuel.

At one point, Brody looked at me after I got one of my many, many (two) strikes and said “wow”. Then he said “fast”. I told him that it helped that I was bigger, but that I’ve watched him send some balls down pretty fast as well. He smiled and picked up another ball and sent it down the lane. “See?”, I said. “Fast.”

For the next hour, Brody and I bowled side by side. We cheered each other on and after almost every ball we’d share a one-liner. I’d say “So close!” “Great ball!” “You’ll get it next time!”. He’d tell me to throw the ball fast again and “wow!” if the pins made a lot of noise and bounced around in the pit.

At one point, Brody sent the ball straight down the middle of the lane. “That’s a good ball, buddy! Good ball!” I exclaimed. The ball pushed through all the pins leaving none standing. He looked at me with a look of such joy and I had the biggest smile on my face. Then he started dancing. Forget end zone celebrations from athletes that do them all the time. There is nothing like watching a kid who accomplished something own it with dance moves.

At the end of the party, I told Brody how much fun it was to bowl with him. He reached over, smiled, and tickled me. I smiled back and went to change my shoes. Brody picked up his ball and carried it to the ramp.

As I sat swapping one pair of stylish kicks for another, I noticed my wife talking to Brody’s mom. I didn’t think anything of it then. But as we headed out the door, Brody’s mom came over and gave me a big hug.

My wife told me after we left how much the way that I treated Brody had meant to his mom. She told my wife that my son saw I how I treated Brody, so he will learn to treat people the same way.

It broke my heart. All I did was treat Brody like the kid that he is, and that was enough to cause a reaction in his mother. Because, for whatever reason, the default from people is to not treat him that way.

It made me think about how people treat my son. Most of the time, he looks like a normal kid and his seizures happen inside our bubble at home. But there are differences that kids do notice and that they already question. Why does his lunch look different from ours? Why can’t he eat the birthday cake? Why does he have an aide to help him in school? Why does he leave early or why is he absent so much? Right now, these questions come from curiosity. But I’m afraid that the day is coming when those around him will turn those questions into ammunition. We have lost our tolerance for people and things that are different.

But the response should not be apologies and isolation. It should be inclusion and acceptance. I’m trying to show my son how to treat other people with kindness and respect so that he will do the same and expect the same in return.  I’m trying to raise a resilient kid that won’t let labels slung in fear or ignorance define him. I want him to understand that everyone has their stuff. But if we make an effort to get through that stuff, we can find a person worth knowing, just like he is worth knowing. And like Brody is worth knowing. And, sometimes, we get to make new friends and, if we’re lucky, we get to see the magic of a smile or a celebration dance. And, sometimes, that effort and that magic will affect the other people around us, too.

Starting From The Beginning

One of the truths about anyone new coming into our lives today is that they will never know how bad things were. Eventually, anyone that hangs around long enough will hear my son’s story. We will tell them how dark the times were and how sick my son got and how grateful we are to be where we are. But looking at my son today, it’s hard for most people to believe that things were that bad.

That disconnect feels isolating. It’s a reminder that there aren’t many people in our lives from that time. We were largely confined to the hospital after moving to a new city. The only people we knew were the medical staff, but they were transitory. We rarely saw any with regularity. Instead, we repeated my son’s history to every new face we saw. But they moved on and we stayed trapped in our world scared, desperate, and alone in the dark. Every day, every week, every month.

Sometimes, when you tell a story over and over again, it can dull the pain. The repetition has a numbing effect that makes it easier to deal with. But when you’re in the middle of it, that doesn’t work. Instead, it keeps the pain and the fear fresh and present. After months of unrelenting confrontation with our new reality, I wanted it to stop. I wanted one person, just one person, who I felt knew us, knew my son and could understand.

After a long string of random faces, my wish was finally answered. One neurologist started coming back through on rotation. Instead of repeating our son’s entire history each time, we could give her updates. She provided consistency and stability through our endlessly repeating days. I began to feel like I was talking to someone who understood what we were up against. Someone who knew how bad things were. She cared about us. Without those connections, it’s hard to imagine anyone fighting as hard as we were to not go back to that place. But she did. And for the last three years, we’ve had her at our side every step of the way.

Until now.

The woman who in many ways saved my son is leaving. I’m trying to be stoic. I’m trying to be grateful for everything she did for us. I’m trying to be happy for her as she pursues more of a focus on epilepsy because of her experience with my son. I’m trying to think about the many more children she is going to be able to help. But I mostly feel afraid. Afraid to take these next steps without her. Afraid that no one is going to get us or my son like she did. Afraid that no one is going to fight as hard as she did because of how connected she was to our story. When there aren’t many people that can relate to what you are going through, the loss of one is significant.

We’re at one of the best children’s hospitals in the country. Our new neurologist is one of the best in that hospital. But she didn’t see my son at his worst and I’m struggling with whether that matters. Whether she’ll fight as hard as she would if she had seen him back when this all started. Whether she will be personally invested in his outcome. Because I need that. I need his caregivers to have that connection to him. I need them to know and call him by his nickname. I need them to know how important he is. I need them to know who he is. He’s not just a patient, he’s my son.

The thought of having to start over is stirring memories from when this all began. I’m afraid of having to start retelling my son’s story and reliving those dark and fearful days. But I’m also going to miss that light that lifted us from the darkness. I’m going to miss having her at our side.

We tell our son to be brave. To be grateful. To try to find the positive. And I am trying, but right now I just feel scared, and alone, and sad.

Epilepsy Awareness In The School – The 504 Plan

This week, my wife and I are meeting with my son’s school to update his 504 plan. A 504 plan is intended to ensure that a child with a disability has access to learning and receives accommodations to help them succeed academically. In my son’s case, his plan outlines breaks, seating placement, a shortened school day, and special assistance for attention and behavioral issues. The plan is put together collectively by the parents, nurse, teacher, and school district with input from my son’s medical team and support services and it is meant to be a “living document” that will change as my son’s condition or capabilities change.

This is our first year with a 504 plan. Even though we’re only a few months into the school year, we are pulling the team together to make adjustments. Some changes are good, such as lengthening his day since his endurance has improved. We also have a better sense of how he handles the day, so instead of basing his breaks strictly on a time, we can place them after harder tasks so that he can spend more time in the classroom with his peers. But we also need to address some issues that many parents of children with epilepsy face when trying to get the right services for their child.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

Most of the time, if you look at my son, he looks like a normal, healthy kid. I am extremely grateful for that, but it makes requesting services for him difficult because he doesn’t look “look sick”. Epilepsy is included in the class of conditions called “invisible disabilities”. While a seizure itself might be external, many of the effects surrounding epilepsy are internal. Fatigue, depression, and problems with attention and cognition are just some of the issues that my son deals with every day. On the outside, he might look like a normal 7-year-old boy and it’s easy to want to treat him that way. Too many times my son doesn’t get a break that he needs because he “looks fine” but, by the end of the day, he’s so physically exhausted that, not only is he not actually learning anything, he has more seizures that night and the next morning that cause him to start the next day already exhausted. It’s only after

Epilepsy is included in the class of conditions called “invisible disabilities”. While a seizure itself might be external, many of the effects surrounding epilepsy are internal. Fatigue, depression, and problems with attention and cognition are just some of the issues that my son deals with every day. On the outside, he might look like a normal 7-year-old boy and it’s easy to want to treat him that way. Too many times my son doesn’t get a break that he needs because he “looks fine” but, by the end of the day, he’s so physically exhausted that, not only is he not actually learning anything, he has more seizures that night and the next morning that cause him to start the next day already exhausted. It’s only after a few days following seizure-filled nights that my son physically fits the “sick kid” profile.

Not All Epilepsy Is The Same

Epilepsy covers a broad range of seizure disorders. A teacher mentioned that she had a student with epilepsy that would have a seizure, sleep at her desk, then wake up and be fine. When she described that experience, she did so in a “don’t worry, I clearly know epilepsy so I’ve got this” tone that raised the “you don’t got this” alarm bells in my head.

Epilepsy is more than just seizures and there are an infinite number of variables surrounding the seizures that make each case unique. My son rarely has seizures during the day, but depending on how tired he is, he may have more at night and in the early morning hours, which affects how rested he is going into the next day which perpetuates the problem. The state of his brain at any given moment dictates his behavior and his ability to retain and recall information. His head is constantly swimming in medication and the side effects of those medicines are exacerbated depending on his cognitive load, seizure burden, and his physical condition. So not only are not all cases of epilepsy the same, but people with epilepsy can show a wide range of symptoms and effects on any given day.

Not Everything That Looks Like “Normal Behavior” Is

“All kids his age…” Anytime someone starts a sentence with that phrase, I know that I’m going to have to break out the soapbox. First, “all kids” don’t do the same thing. But most importantly, the behavior that looks like the “normal” attention problems of a first grader are actual misfirings of the neurons in my son’s brain that are preventing him from recalling any information. The glassy eyes and the “no one is home” look could be the result of a seizure or the way that his medicine is affecting him today so his extra-slurred speech and his frustration trying to piece together a complete thought are not normal development problems, either, especially when they vary throughout the day.

Even with the best intentions, treating something as “normal” has both the risk of setting my son up to feel like a failure because he can’t control what is happening to him and prevents the identification of what is actually causing the behavior and the ability to address that cause.

Things You Can Do

We are very new to this world, but we are extremely grateful to have a wonderful support network around us and to have had many people go before us and share their lessons. To continue on in that spirit, here are a few of the lessons that I have learned that may help you navigate this long, difficult road.

Have The Conversation

Balancing my desire to have the world treat him as a “normal” kid and making him feel like a normal kid with the reality that he has special needs is a challenge I face every day. Not everyone else does or has a reference for what that means. Having a dialog with the teachers and the school district and talking about their perceptions is an important piece of having everyone on the same page. “It’s great that you have seen a seizure, but here is how my son is different from that other student.” As the teachers have more interactions with my son, and as we continue to talk about what they have seen and what things we are seeing at home, we’ll all have a better picture and be able to adjust the plan to better suit my son’s needs as they continue to change.

Have The Information

My wife and I have talked leading into this meeting about what is working with his current plan and what isn’t working. We’ve talked about what things we need to bring up, how to bring them up, and what documentation we need to provide to support our position, and we will have that documentation available. Doctor’s reports, neuropsychological tests, reports from wraparound services. Perceptions are hard to change but the best way to support the request for services that your child needs is with data.

Have A Support Network

One of the best resources that we have available to us is our support network. Other parents that work tirelessly to navigate the system, social services through the hospital and the state, and epilepsy groups such as the Epilepsy Foundation of Eastern Pennsylvania that have programs to bring epilepsy education into the classroom. This network provides the guidance and information we need to ensure that we are asking the right questions and asking for the right services for our son. In some cases, we’ve brought people from this network into these meetings. In the end, we have built a team that we can leverage to do what is best for my son.

Have The Courage To Fight

If you’re averse to conflict like I am, get over it. It may seem like the system is set up to oppose these special services. They cost money, they disrupt the normal flow and structure of the school day, and especially with an “invisible disease”, the system may try to convince you that your child doesn’t need these services. As we’ve been told many times, there is no one that will be a bigger advocate for our son than us. Be that voice. Partner when you can. Fight when you must.

Additional Information

There is a lot of good information about what to ask for in a 504 plan, and I wanted to share these links that I found useful. If you have other suggestions or resources to share to help other parents going through this process, please share them in the comments.

A parent’s guide to Section 504 in public schools

Sample 504 plan for epilepsy: http://www.epilepsynorcal.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Sample_504.pdf

NEXT UP: Be sure to check out the next post tomorrow from Eisai/Sean at livingwellwithepilepsy.com for more on epilepsy awareness. For the full schedule of bloggers visit livingwellwithepilepsy.com. And don’t miss your chance to connect with bloggers on the #LivingWellChat on November 30 at 7PM ET.