Impossible

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“They’re shouting for you,” she said with a smile. “But I could never have done it,” he objected, “without everyone else’s help.”

“That may be true,” said Reason gravely, “but you had the courage to try; and what you can do is often simply a matter of what you will do.”

“That’s why,” said Azaz, “there was one very important thing about your quest that we couldn’t discuss until you returned.”

“I remember, said Milo eagerly. “Tell me now.”

“It was impossible,” said the Mathemagician, looking at the king…”but if we’d told you then, you might not have gone-and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible”

My Christmas concluded tonight snuggled up with Noah as we finished the final chapters of The Phantom Tollbooth written by Norton Juster.  Two hundred and fifty-five pages of literary fantasy, a quest to restore rhyme and reason to a land that had lost both.

As I read the quote above, I couldn’t help but think of my year, my work, and my own impossible quest.  The mountainous mission to raise money for a cure for FTD while juggling work, caregiving and single parenthood with grace.  To redefine my family.  And, to bring it in an even bigger way in 2016.

An impossible quest is exactly where I want to be. No roadmap or guiding star.  A go for broke, balls to the wall, all in with nothing left on the table kind of quest.  In a situation like that, the only place to go is up.

Thankful

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One month after our amazing, incredible, heart burstingly beautiful inaugural gala to benefit The Frontotemporal Disorders Unit at the Boston Harbor Hotel, and only days before Thanksgiving, I am thinking a lot about gratitude.  Gratitude for every pledge of support, every word of encouragement and every congratulatory hug.  Standing at the podium with Dr. Dickerson, I was privileged to a humbling view looking out at a room full of friends and colleagues raising paddles high in the air, banners of hope that the cure of tomorrow is not so far away.

The gala felt big.  Bigger than big.  It felt epic.  For me, it was a turning point in our movement.  A turning point dressed up in tuxedos and sequins with big band music, glasses of champagne and laughter on the dance floor.  Brain images sprinkled with sparkles and research data punctuated by rounds of applause. It was a night where FTD stayed in the shadows and our community was in the spotlight.  I carried that spotlight home with me and tried to tell Noah about the magic of the night.  He listened for a few moments, but I felt pretty sure that my recounting was unremarkable.

Until yesterday.

Noah and I were alone in the car and headed to the grocery store with a mission to find peppermint ice cream.  He always asks me questions while I drive, so I didn’t think too much of it when his little voice piped over the radio “Mom, how do you get famous?” I started talking about athletes and movie stars who worked hard to have important careers when he interrupted me, “Well, you are going to be famous.” That got my attention.

“Noah, what do you mean?” I asked.  “Because of FTD” he replied. “You are working so hard.  You planned a gala.  You made a TV show.  You were on the radio.  That makes people famous.”  By all accounts, Noah was right.  I did make a short film this past spring with four students from Boston University (over 1,000 YouTube views!) and Noah and I were interviewed on our Hometown AM radio station before Rare Disease Day last February (he loved pushing all the console buttons and later telling his friends that he was “on air.”)  While I appreciate Noah’s belief that I will one day find Kardashian-level stardom, it was his acknowledgement of my hard work that felt like my very own academy award.

I am humbled by every donor who supported our gala through sponsorships, online donations and gifts that are still coming in.  Mostly, I am grateful that the biggest little person in my life noticed how much of myself I give to my work.  To every scientist, researcher and clinician who stays up late at night thinking of our community and how to create the cure of tomorrow, I want you to hear this:  Your passion is noticed.  Families know you care.  We believe in you.  We are grateful you are on this journey with us.  Keep going!

With Love & Appreciation, Happy Thanksgiving

Something Rare

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On February 22nd, our family’s journey with the rare disease Frontotemporal Degeneration (FTD) was featured in The Boston Globe, written beautifully by reporter Bella English.  The timing of this article was serendipitous as we are on the precipice of International Rare Disease Day on February 28th.  Even more extraordinary was the act of kindness that occurred when Noah and I went to pick up our own copies.

Our Sunday morning was busy, getting ready for the baptism of my newest Godson.  Ironing shirts, finding matching sweater vests for Dad and Noah and double checking for peanut butter on Noah’s face.  Early in the afternoon Noah and I stopped at our local Cumberland Farms where I asked “Do you have any Globes left?”  I was directed to the newsstand and began flipping through the first copy I could find.  There it was.  The back page of Globe South, above the fold, an article written with heart, accurate facts, and a color family photo.

“Noah!  It’s us! We are in the paper!” which made Noah ask, “How did the paper get our picture?” What I find exciting, he finds regular.  We scooped up the last four papers and headed to the cash register with big smiles.  The cashier looked at my stack and asked if I found what I needed.  I showed her the article and explained that Noah and I had lost Mike to a rare disease, and that on Monday morning I will be at the State House for Boston’s Rare Disease Day event.  For a moment she seemed thoughtful, then looked at me and said “I am paying for your papers.”

Noah and I are not regulars at Cumby’s.  I did not know this young cashier.  Her connection with us, and decision to extend a gift of kindness was immediate and without question.  She would only accept a hug in exchange for her generosity.

I am thankful for the gift that this community member extended to us, not for it’s monetary value, but because Noah witnessed this act.  He will learn that the act of a cashier paying for your items is rare, but kindness is everywhere.  All you have to do is be open to the connection.

life of ‘pie’

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A beautiful example of embracing the sweet memories after a goodbye that came much too early. Thank you for sharing your family’s story Brianna!

briannafrommontana

When I was about 15 years old my dad started baking pies.  Not just any pies.  Masterful, mouthwatering pies.  Apple raspberry, blueberry lemon meringue, caramel peach, and my personal favorite, strawberry rhubarb (with both strawberries and rhubarb freshly harvested from a summer garden). I never got around to asking why my dad took up making pie.  Maybe it was the clay-like feel of the pie dough, or the artistic sculpting of a beautiful lattice top pie crust.  Or maybe it was just that he would take a slice of pie over a piece of cake any day.  Whether motivated on by artistic expression or a sweet tooth, his pies were both beautiful and delicious.

You could tell a lot about my dad from his pies.  Besides love for his family, he believed in the value of integrity and hard work above all else.  No pre-made crust would ever be used…

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Power Play

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On November 13th I had the privilege of speaking at From Care to Cure, an FTD Education Event for caregivers presented by the Frontotemporal Disorders (FTD) Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. I was also one of the conference organizers. The day encompassed scientific presentations, workshops to manage the practical aspects of caring for a loved one with FTD, and an opportunity for caregivers to connect with one another.  I am proud to say that it was a powerful day, providing us with updates on FTD research and hope for future generations of families.

The following are my remarks from the day.  Sharing my story in a public way is an emotional, and important experience for me.  I hope that by sharing my experiences, I can make the caregiving journey easier for families today.  I am thankful to Dr. Dickerson, director of the FTD Unit, for giving me this opportunity, and for the FTD community for all the love and support they give me every time I speak.

A Campaign for Caregivers:  Taking the Power Back

Good afternoon everyone and thank you so much for coming today!

As I look out at the crowd I see many familiar faces, for those of you who don’t know me, I am Katie Brandt. I am the New England Regional Volunteer Coordinator for the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration. I am the Patient Family Liaison at the FTD Unit at MGH. And, I am a co-facilitator of the Boston-area FTD Support Group.

What is most important for you to know is that I am a caregiver.

At the age of 29, my husband Mike was diagnosed with behavioral variant FTD. At the time, we had been married for 6 years, and our son Noah was 10 months old.

As if FTD wasn’t enough, 4 days after Mike’s diagnosis, my mother died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Seventeen days after that, a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s was confirmed for my father. He was 59.

At the age of 29, my world was turned upside down. I left my career, let my house go to foreclosure and became engulfed by my new roles as a single parent for Noah and a caregiver for Mike and Dad. Noah and I moved in with Dad and I found an amazing neuro rehabilitation center to care for Mike. I juggled babysitters, home health aides, medical appointments and visits with Mike. Despite dementia’s looming presence, Mike, Noah and I figured out how to be a family.

But, it wasn’t easy. Caregiving tried to take me down. I lost 15 pounds without trying, developed chronic hives due to stress and was perpetually exhausted.

Skinny, speckled and sad, I was almost 3 years into my caregiving odyssey as we approached what would be Mike’s last Christmas. In an effort to overcompensate, I let Noah pick out a 12 foot Christmas tree, thinking it would enhance the magic of the holidays for him.

Late one night after finishing chores and checking on Dad and Noah one last time, I was about to head to bed when I realized that I hadn’t watered the tree. I dreaded this task because I knew I would have to move gifts and wiggle under the thick lower branches to reach the tree stand’s water reservoir. I sighed and filled a pitcher with water, shuffling in my slippers across the living room floor and flattened myself against the cold hardwood to give our monstrous tree a fresh drink.

Just as I was tapping the last drops against the trunk, I saw the base LIFT off the floor and all of a sudden the whole tree tipped forward and crashed on top of me. Ornaments broke. Water and pine needles ran down the collar of my robe and into the neck of my pajamas. My hair was tangled in branches and Christmas lights. The tree was heavy. It was crushing me.

And I just laid there.

I realized that no one was coming. I was alone in my predicament.

I had a choice to make: Lay on the floor until Dad and Noah woke up in the morning, or heave that huge balsam off of me and go find some new pajamas. After a few moments, I became exasperated. After everything I had been through, I certainly wasn’t going to let a Christmas decoration bring on my demise. Somehow, I maneuvered out from under the tree and shoved it in a corner until the next morning when I redecorated it and tethered it to the wall.

A few months later, Mike’s journey with FTD ended.

And, when he left us, I felt crushed. The heavy weight of sadness as palpable as a forest of trees upon my chest. This didn’t surprise me, I expected the tidal wave of grief to try and smother me, what I didn’t know was that I would have the opportunity to make a choice that would change the trajectory of my grief. And, I wouldn’t have to do it alone. The staff of the FTD Unit was there, extending support to help me make a powerful choice. With their guidance, I was able to help Mike give the precious gift of brain donation. For me, this was the first step in taking some of the power back from FTD.

Since Mike’s passing in 2012, I have become an advocate, educator and trainer in the areas of FTD and caregiving. I have given presentations at colleges, conferences, hospitals and skilled nursing facilities. I have spoken in Washington DC and was a featured speaker last February at the Boston Rare Disease Day event at the State House.

And, I didn’t stop there.

Inspired by the experience of sharing my story as a member of the rare disease community, I wanted to share my story in a bigger way. I just didn’t know how I would do it. Around that time, I came across a book my mother had given me the Christmas I was 16. It was a copy of the first edition of “Chicken Soup for the Soul” with an inscription scrawled across the inside cover:

“Katie, I thought you might appreciate the quotes and stories in this book. Some day you will have your own to collect that will give you inspiration. Write them down. We all need to be reminded that love is out there. Love, Mom”

In that moment, her confidence in me felt as real as if she had just spoken the words aloud herself. Mom could never have imagined that I would have this story to tell. But, her belief in me was steadfast. And, I sure don’t want to let her down.

I set out on a 36-day campaign, Love Is Out There, in honor of what would have been Mike’s 36th birthday this upcoming March and mobilized thousands of people through social media, fundraising events, and a letter writing campaign. The goal? To get on the Ellen DeGeneres Show in honor of Rare Disease Day this upcoming February. The outcome? Funds were raised, connections were made, and the requests are still being sent to Ellen. In fact, each of you can go on to my website, KatieBrandt.org, and submit a request to Ellen on my behalf. The website provides all the information you need and it will only take a few moments of your time.

Let me be clear: My drive to get on an afternoon talk show is not because I am hoping to become a reality TV star. This campaign is about sharing the story of caregiving and spreading awareness.

In my early days of caregiving I felt isolated and alone. Many of my friends and family members stayed away because they didn’t know what to do or how to help. But there were others: Girlfriends who showed up with a bottle of wine. Women from my church who took Dad once a week. My best friend’s mother who would bring me dinner, just because.

Love is out there.

We don’t yet have a cure for FTD, but there is a cure for loneliness and isolation! No caregiver should feel alone. They need to know that resources and support exist. Community members need to know that they can help. We can all play a role in making that part of the caregiving journey easier.

Today, caregiving is easier than it used to be for me. Noah and I have a lot of fun together. I have a good system of care in place for Dad.   I go out on Saturday nights! And, I am no longer speckled with hives. I have a strict height limit on Christmas trees and I am hopeful about what might be next in my life’s love story.

You know, even if I could make it rain Benjamins over MGH, even if I shared my story on every media outlet in the country, to me, nothing will ever be as significant as my decision to donate Mike’s brain for research. This was my power play against FTD.

It can be yours, too.

The caring clinicians and expert researchers of the FTD Unit are poised and ready to receive the irreplaceable gifts that only our loved ones can give. If someone you love has a Frontotemporal disorder, you know that life is not fair. We are unwilling members of an elite club. We are also stewards of a gift that is priceless and precious. A gift that can change the trajectory of care and a cure for future generations.

FTD thinks it is all-powerful.

Let’s not be afraid to take that power back.

Thank you!

FromCaretoCure

Thank You

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Yesterday, I went to the post office to mail two donations.  The result of generosity from my community and the fruits of back to back fundraisers.  The first was a wild night at Chili Head BBQ in West Bridgewater.  Outrageous entrees, decadent beer and inspired music met the crowd ready for a fun night out.  The second was a packed house at Crispi’s Italian Restaurant in Bridgewater.  Good friends, family and community members buying AFTD wristbands from Noah, hoping to win a raffle prize and enjoying authentic Italian cuisine.  Both events were a celebration, my community coming out to learn more and show support.  Symbolic of what all caregivers need.

It was very important that the campaign hosted two fundraisers.  The first benefitted the Frontotemporal Disorders Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, the second The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration.  Sending out two donations, supporting both entities, was symbolic of what a family needs to navigate rare disease: A Trifecta.

For me, that trifecta encompassed an innovative medical facility, my rare disease organization, and my community.  One piece is never enough.  In order to navigate the maze of information, emotions, and logistics of rare disease care, each element must be in place.  Many families need more help putting these pieces together.

Families need to know that rare disease organizations and caregiver networks do exist.  They need to understand the importance of being with a medical team that understands the specific nuances of their loved one’s condition.  Community members need to know that they don’t have to stay away, everyone can do something.

That is what this campaign is all about.  Raising awareness.  Sharing our stories.  Making the path a little easier for the next weary travelers.  The past 36 days have been an incredible tribute to my husband’s life, the power of our story, and the strength in human connections.  My friends, family and colleagues have astounded me with their passion, commitment and enthusiasm for my cause.  Local businesses have overwhelmed me with their generosity.  Strangers have reached out to me to say “That’s my story, too.”

As I was parking the car before going into the fundraiser last Tuesday night, I turned around to Noah in the backseat and asked him “Why are we doing all of this?  Do you know what this fundraiser is for?”  He replied “So we can give money to a scientist who can fix people’s brains with FTD.”

Today, Noah sees the tangible.  The money going into jars and envelopes.  One day, I hope he sees the bigger picture.  I hope he sees how we kept going, not only for ourselves, but for all the other families who needed to hear that Love Is Out There.

The website has had over 12,000 views.  The Ellen Show has received over 1,000 individual requests.  I can’t quantify the number of connections.  I couldn’t have anticipated the momentum that would build. Today is the last day of our 36 day campaign.  But, it feels like just the beginning.  Keep an eye out to see where the butterfly will land next.