Ilyce Randell

@ilyce-randell | contributor
lyce Randell is the mother of two children, one typically developing 15 year-old boy named Alex and one 20 year-old boy named Max who was born with Canavan disease. She has been working to help families affected by Canavan disease for over 19 years by advocating for patient rights, raising money for medical research and increasing awareness about Canavan disease. Ilyce has recently launched the world’s first international Patient Insight Network (PIN) for Canavan disease through a partnership between AltaVoice, (formerly PatientCrossroads) and Canavan Research Illinois. This tool is critical for advancing research and networking patients worldwide. Ilyce is also the President, Director of Patient Advocacy and Cofounder of Canavan Research Illinois. www.curecanavan.org
Ilyce Randell

My Son With Canavan Disease Showed Me You're Not Too Old to See Santa

I felt like the worst mom in the world. I received a call from our palliative care provider asking if my son would like a home visit from Santa since we missed the family Christmas party. I politely declined saying Maxie was an adult and at 20 years of age he was “too old for Santa.” I immediately started second-guessing this decision and panicked thinking, “What if this is his last Christmas?” Yes, that’s an actual thing you think when your kid has Canavan disease. Then 15 minutes later I saw a friend’s Facebook post about her son (he’s close to Max’s age and also has Canavan disease). He was smiling and happy in a picture with, you guessed it, Santa! The caption read, “Never too old to see Santa.” My heart sank in my chest, and I started crying because I felt like I’d made a huge mistake. I picked up my son from his work program later that day, and I asked him if he wanted Santa to visit him. He immediately blinked really long, which means a big yes. So I called and left a frantic message to try and get Santa over for Maxie. I finally received a call back a few days later. I put the call on speaker, and when the woman on the phone said Santa would come see Maxie he started smiling, laughing and doing his happy babbling. I cried tears of happiness because I’m not the “world’s worst mom” after all and now I know you’re never too old to see Santa. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Getty image by Romolo Tavani

Ilyce Randell

The R-Word Hurts, Please Stop Using It

I’m generally not easily offended and I believe in free speech. But with that said, there are some rules that need to govern common human decency and how we treat children and young adults who are born with disabilities. Some comments are so hateful and disgusting they should never be made, especially on a public forum. I suppose I’m lucky to have gone 20 years with no one ever making a rude or offensive comment about my child. My son is disabled and was born with a fatal degenerative brain disease. We lived in ignorant bliss till now and had not personally encountered anyone who could say something extremely hateful about a sick child — a boy who has fought unimaginable battles just to be alive. Then one day someone posted a comment on social media saying they “hoped my r*tard son would die.” It doesn’t matter to me why this comment was made. I feel the need to speak out and urge people to think about what they’re saying before something is put out into the universe that can never be taken back. Choose your words carefully because what you say affects more people than you realize. When you post hate speech publicly you can end up with many uninintened casualties. Just because we live in a free country and are entitled to say, think and write pretty much whatever we want doesn’t mean doing so comes without consequences. When people use the r-word, they need to stop and think about how they would feel if this was being said about their own child, family member or someone they love. All life is valuable and all people deserve respect regardless of what disabilities they’re born with. So think before you speak and choose your words carefully because those words may come back to you one day if you or someone you know has a child with disabilities. #spreadthewordtoendtheword We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here .

Ilyce Randell

Experiencing Anticipatory Grief for My Child

Nothing can prepare you for the loss of your child. I’m positive this is true. I’ve heard these words from many parents who have lost their children. Even though I haven’t experienced this loss personally, I know it must be true. There is absolutely nothing in this world that can prepare you for the loss of your child. There are many different ways people grieve, and for many different reasons. Grief doesn’t always follow losing someone we love. When my son was diagnosed with a fatal disease called Canavan disease, I realized, in hindsight, I went through all the stages of grief even though my son was still with me. ANTICIPATORY GRIEF After coming to terms with the diagnosis, this feeling of grief eventually faded away. But grief comes in many forms. There is something called anticipatory grief, which parents like me can experience when we have seen so many others in the same situation lose their children. We mourn with these other families and silently wonder if we’ll be next. Even though I know there is no way to mentally prepare for losing my son, I still can’t help but try. There are endless poems and blogs dedicated to child loss. And as my son grows older and I watch more children pass away, I read everything people share about losing their children. I read their words because I feel heartbroken for their loss and I want to be supportive. I also read the words of grieving parents because I know one day this will be my reality, too. I can’t count how many times I’ve read something about someone else losing a child and had to stop because I couldn’t finish it without breaking down in tears. The agony and sense of loss is palpable. These parents are in so much pain, and they are so articulate I can actually feel every word they have written deep inside my heart. This is empathy, a typical thing to feel when you read something so emotional that it moves you and you can feel something very similar to what the author is describing. This is very different from anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is the experience of grief before an impending loss. How can we possibly go on day-to-day caring for a child we know we are eventually going to lose and not be affected emotionally? I have absolutely no idea; this is something I struggle with on a daily basis. I have been raising a child with a life-limiting illness for over 19 years. I know a lot about many things that we, as parents of medically involved children, become experts on, but not this. I cannot seem to escape this feeling of dread. CONFRONTING THE END My son almost lost his battle with Canavan disease this winter. I watched him turn blue and stop breathing on half a dozen occasions. I begged him to fight, to stay with Mommy. I begged him not to leave me. When the time came to let him go I couldn’t do it. I’m wondering if I’ll ever be able to. I think about this every single day. This can’t be healthy, but I can’t escape this feeling of anticipatory grief. I got much too close to death during that illness. I will never be able to unsee my child teetering on the thin line between life and death. Some things change who we are fundamentally, and there is no going back to who we were before. PREPARING EMOTIONALLY I don’t really know how or why my son survived this illness, but he did. I’ve been gifted with more time. I know I should make every moment count, but that is easier said than done. I already know I should be focusing more on the time we have left, living in the moment and all that. But sometimes I get consumed with this grief. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to talk about these things, these feelings. But I do know ignoring them won’t make them go away. So I try to take the mystery away by giving it a name: anticipatory grief. It’s a real thing and I know I might not be the only person who feels like this. I will love my son with every fiber of my being, for every second I have him with me. The time I have left with my son is a gift and I continue to memorize every detail of how he feels in my arms. I know I need to store up these memories because this glimpse into the future is a reminder to me our time on this earth is fleeting and we need to make it count. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Thinkstock image by: max-kegfire

Ilyce Randell

Doctors: Ignore the Prognosis of the Disease, and Save My Child

“When you hear hoofbeats think of horses, not zebras.” In medicine this is a reference telling doctors to first look for a more common explanation of symptoms before searching for a rare or obscure diagnosis. It makes perfect sense. First rule out the more simple possibilities until those yield no diagnosis, then begin searching for a less common explanation. But what happens when you already know the hoofbeats belong to a zebra, and your child has already been diagnosed with a rare disease? I can tell you from 19 years experience that a lot of the time I still have to remind the doctors to look at the whole picture and not just the disease. Children who are living with a rare disease still have many of the common childhood ailments from reflux to severe respiratory illness, and everything in between. And sometimes the sound of zebra hoofbeats is so loud the medical team never even stops long enough to listen for the horse. Not everything that goes wrong with my child is related to Canavan disease. This is something that I’ve discussed with other Canavan parents as well, but I’m sure it’s just as common in other rare disease communities. When Max was a baby, before I had 10,000 photos readily available on my Facebook page, I had to bring a photo album with me to every ER visit just to prove to the team that, “No, he’s not usually like this.” They would look up the description of Canavan and then come back puzzled about why we were even there because the unconscious, sick child actually matched the outdated and incorrect textbook definition of Canavan disease. I would repeatedly explain that I expected them to figure out what was wrong with him, besides Canavan disease, and fix it! As Maxie has gotten older, and is now pretty well beyond the typical life expectancy for Canavan, I have encountered another side effect of the zebra phenomenon. The “typical disease progression” answer. And I find myself again put in the position of advocating for my son and demanding that the medical team look for something they can treat, ignore the prognosis of the disease, and save my child. I have learned that once they begin attributing things to “disease progression” that’s my cue to show off a picture of Max at his riding lesson the week before and remind them of the first rule, “When you hear hoofbeats think of horses, not zebras.” We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Thinkstock Image By: Peerajit

Ilyce Randell

How I Keep My Son's G-Tube Site Clean

“Wow, that’s the best looking G-tube site I’ve ever seen!” Those were the first words I heard from the PICU nurse about my son. At the time he was unconscious and using a ventilator, but I understood what the nurse meant. My son is 19 years old and has had a G-tube for over 13 years. I know from talking to other parents that keeping the site clean and healthy can sometimes be a challenge. Just days before he was admitted to the hospital I was taking pictures of Maxie’s belly to share with a fellow parent in an online group. The other mom had told me that skin around her son’s tube looked red all the time. The G-tube site is a constant topic online, and I have heard from many families over the years that the skin is usually red or that there is leakage around the tube site. I know there are several options available to keep some type of covering over the area, but we were advised against covering the skin with anything and haven’t encountered any of the common problems. I’m not sure how we got so lucky, but we’ve never had any issues with redness, granulation, leaking or infection. I attribute this mainly to the doctor and the advice that he gave us, which for the most part I followed. He told us to treat it like an earring hole, and after the initial wound healed to leave it uncovered all the time and twist it around so the skin wouldn’t grow back around it. That’s it. I followed his instructions, but I initially used Neosporin with painkiller on the site until it was completely healed. My son’s doctor actually told me not to put any type of ointment on it, but I love Neosporin and didn’t see the harm. I’m not advocating going against doctor’s orders, but this was just something I decided to do mainly because there is a topical painkiller in Neosporin, and I didn’t want my son to have any more discomfort than necessary. I’m not bragging, but over the years I have received compliments from every health care professional who has had the occasion to see Max’s G-tube.  If you have a child with any special needs you’ll understand that sometimes any positive reinforcement about the care we’re giving our children is extremely encouraging to a parent trying to navigate through the oftentimes new and unchartered lifestyle. I never thought much of it, but over the years through social media the special needs world has become so easily accessible that I am in contact with people all over the world on a daily basis, and this G-tube issue is a common theme. Since everyone seems to think that Max’s G-tube site is really amazing, I definitely want to pass on the information we were given so long ago. I can’t even remember why I was so worried about the fact that one day Max would need this miracle of modern medicine, because for our family it’s just part of the daily schedule. The way he gets nutrition by having a feeding tube has improved Max’s life beyond measure. Editor’s note: Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here .

Ilyce Randell

Canavan and 'Ultra-Rare' Disease: Don't Forget Us on Rare Disease Day

With Rare Disease Day approaching there is an important distinction that needs to be made because “rare disease” does not give an accurate description of Canavan disease. Canavan has recently and more appropriately been designated as an “ultra-rare disease.” While I fully support and understand the need to make people aware of rare diseases I also think it is critical to advance this awareness to each individual and unique disease. A rare disease could affect 200,000 people in the U.S., but Canavan affects only about 500 children and young adults in the entire world. The people who want to discover the cure for Canavan disease are the families it affects. Our research can and has already been applied to other much more common rare diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, but original research was funded, advanced and pioneered by the families living with Canavan disease. Our children need someone fighting for them. I prefer to primarily focus on advancing disease-specific research and a more narrow goal of targeting awareness to help children born with Canavan. If you want to understand more about what it feels like to receive a diagnosis of Canavan disease try to imagine any other illness you are familiar with though your own experience or that of a friend or family member. Now imagine the baby who was just diagnosed with Canavan disease is your own child. When you are given the diagnosis you will also be told there is really not much you can do to help your child because there is no cure. It’s a rare, fatal, and progressive brain disease that will ultimately deteriorate your child’s motor function, including the most primitive and automatic functions such as respiration. I was told to take my baby home and look for a nursing home. Imagine a disease so rare that no one has even heard of it. So when you decide to share this news with your friends and family you also need to give a detailed description of the diagnosis and prognosis. There is no way to accurately describe what it feels like to learn your baby has been born with Canavan disease. I can’t do that by posting a meme about rare diseases. I can’t even begin to describe the absolute destruction of hope. And I will not try to attempt it here. I do want people to understand there are diseases so rare that they are unheard of by the general population. If you know someone affected by Canavan disease please let them know if you are interested in learning more about the disease, what they are going through on a daily basis, or how you can help. Or message me. I have devoted my life to helping discover the cure for Canavan disease. My son is 19 and a half years old and still doing well, largely in part by the research I have been fighting for and funding for the past 19 years when I received the news of Max’s diagnosis. I never gave up hope, and my mission is to give that same hope to as many other families as possible. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Thinkstock photo by wild pixel

Ilyce Randell

Mother Is Thankful for Ventilator That Saved Her Child

“We might need to intubate.” There are few words that I have been anticipating and fearing as much as these. Even though my son, Maxie, was born with Canavan disease and is 19 years old, he has enjoyed extremely good health with only about three respiratory illnesses in his entire life. This is not by accident. We have vigorously and enthusiastically taken every possible preventative measure with his care. He’s very fortunate to have an amazing pulmonologist and respiratory therapist who suggested a daily maintenance regime of inhalers, nebulizers and percussion vest treatments twice a day for the past 13 years. It’s been a true labor of love keeping Maxie healthy, but the alternative is much worse. We’ve always known that intubation could be tricky for Max, and if he was ever required to be placed on a ventilator, we knew the extubation would be far trickier. On November 6 at about 10 a.m., my worst fears came true. When we left the house, he had a fever, and within the hour of arriving at the ER, Maxie had stopped fighting and his body temperature was below 95 degrees. He was in full respiratory failure and septic shock. The doctor told me that in order to save his life he would need to intubated and placed on a ventilator. When the doctor asked about advanced directives, I said, “Maxie wants to be here,” and we agreed that “all heroic measures” would be taken to give Max a fighting chance. The doctor said, “If he wants to fight, then we’re here to fight with him.” This ultimately turned into more than a month in intensive care, one unsuccessful extubation, a second intubation and multiple times where my son almost lost his battle. I was fortunate to have many parents contact me with success stories of relatively long stints on a ventilator following a successful extubation and a full recovery. I can only hope to have the same story to share with other families one day. The ventilator and breathing tube were nothing like I imagined it would be. My child was able to get help breathing while his body recovered. This was an easy decision to make at the time, but the anticipation and grief were largely due to my own preconceived notions and some misconceptions. In this case, it was a lifesaving measure that allowed my son to come home. His recovery astounded even the seasoned critical care team who may have been looking more at his diagnosis of Canavan disease than his will to live. I think the ER doctor summed it up perfectly when he told me that if Max wants to fight then let’s give him everything we can to help him win. I’m sharing this in the hopes that it can help another parent when they might have to make the same difficult decision. I was happy to discover that everything I thought I knew about ventilators was wrong. I know there are many instances where the outcome won’t be the same as what we experienced, but I don’t think I fully appreciated the help this technology would offer my son and aid in his recovery because it was always presented to me as such a last resort and terrible option, and that wasn’t my experience at all. This piece of equipment saved my child, and he’s even smiling in the picture I took above, breathing tube and all. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here .

Ilyce Randell

Canavan Disease: Hearing 'He'll Lose the Most Basic Motor Function'

I was recently told my 19-year-old son would need a cough assist machine. At first I didn’t think much about it, but then it hit me and I felt the meaning in every cell of my being. As I reflected back his day of diagnosis, the air rushed from my lungs and I felt my heart being ripped from my chest all over again. Those words, “He’ll lose even the most basic motor function,” rang in my ears. I can recall every detail of first learning about Max’s diagnosis so clearly that even 18 and a half years later I have a visceral reaction to anything resembling news of regression in my child. “The most basic motor function” in later stages of neurodegenerative disease has absolutely nothing to do with walking, talking or even eating. What it actually refers to is the most primitive of all motor function: breathing, swallowing and the gag reflex that protects our airways. These primal functions were set long ago deep within the brain stem. They are the most basic and primitive respiratory functions that keep us alive. When the doctor tried to explain that Max would lose even the most basic motor function due to Canavan disease, this is what he was referring to. It hit me all at once, and now those words suddenly have new real meaning to me. I did a mental replay and realized Max hasn’t been coughing lately, and he doesn’t seem to have a gag reflex anymore. I don’t know how or when it happened, probably so gradually that I didn’t even notice. Just like every other lost skill, one day we look back and realize it’s gone. When your child is profoundly disabled every little thing they can do is critically important. And sometimes the loss is so gradual it isn’t even obvious for months. In this case I learned it isn’t an issue with brain function but rather pinched nerves in his neck, but the effect on his health remains the same. So how do I find a place to exist and live with such a cruel disease that is slowly affecting my child’s most primitive motor function like breathing? I exist somewhere between being the mother of all dragon moms, the textbook cliché of a hyper vigilant, advocate, special needs mom who has learned to navigate confidently through the daunting system of IEPs, and experimental medicine, to an exhausted, derailed and discouraged woman reaching out to other parents desperately asking what a cough assist machine is. It’s a dual existence of having a false sense of control and living in a healthy state of denial to completely falling apart, crying over my child and wondering how I will ever survive one day on this earth without him. This too shall pass. I’ll get a new piece of equipment and learn to use it to improve my child’s health and extend his life. That’s how I will continue to exist. It doesn’t really matter what is going on deep inside his brain stem. He is happy, loving and loved. He gets tired more easily but he is still here. He’s still the same smiling beautiful boy so full of love that he was yesterday before I knew he needed a new machine to cough. I will cry when I have to, but I will continue to move forward. I will file this news away and go on with life. I will probably hug my Maxie a little longer and tighter, pick him up early from his work program today to spend extra time with him, and probably add a third kiss goodnight. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here .

Ilyce Randell

Pursuing Treatment With Drug Companies for Canavan Disease

When news that a drug company first became interested in a tiny disease like Canavan, it seemed like a dream come true. It was the exact thing we had all been hoping for. The research and technology I have been tirelessly advocating for and funding since my child was diagnosed in 1998, had been sold for millions of dollars. The company that purchased it vowed to pursue a cure for our children and we believed them. Well, I really wanted to believe them, but 19 years of fighting for the life of my son has taught me time and again to hold off on the celebration until after we reach the clinic and are allowed to actually use the medicine to help our children. This was almost two years ago, and there has been no progress towards a clinical trial. The company that promised to help our children was recently acquired by one of the biggest drug companies in the world, a pharmaceutical giant with unlimited resources to finally discover the cure for Canavan. But will they move forward quickly enough to save more children from dying? Will they move forward towards development of the new drug we have worked so hard on for almost two decades? Will they move forward at all? This is one of the most helpless and desperate feelings I have ever experienced. When I was told over and over again that no one was working on a cure for Canavan, at least I had the option to start working, raising money and do something proactive towards saving my 5-month-old baby. When the FDA said “no” to our clinical trials, at least I had the option to enlist the aid of every elected official who would listen to my story. Our government officials are supposed to help the people who voted for them, and even the people who didn’t. Legislators and the FDA are publicly accountable for their actions and inactions. In hindsight, I realize that asking my government to save a few dozen cute babies who didn’t “look sick” yet was not so bad after all. It feels like nothing now, compared to dealing with a drug company. I have been working with a patient advocacy representative at the drug company trying to figure out what I can do to help move this life-saving technology forward more quickly. The answer I dreaded most was the one I received. I was told I needed to show a leading pharmaceutical company how they could make a profit by pursuing the cure for Canavan disease. I took frantic notes during my first phone call. I was granted a meeting, and advised to create a presentation of my business model and cost analysis showing how they could make money from developing a cure for Canavan. The list of what I needed to produce made my head spin. I have access to everything they want, but this is a hard sell. I have to show a multibillion dollar company how they can make money by curing my child and the hundreds of other children around the world whose families are desperate to save their babies. From my experience working with them, it feels like these companies are not expected to answer to anyone, and seem to have little public accountability. I have learned that the squeaky wheel gets the oil, but can someone flying in a private jet even hear the small squeak of a tiny wheel down here? I’m going to make as much noise as possible and find out.

Ilyce Randell

Advice for Finding a Cure for Canavan Disease as a Parent

My story is not unique. Many parents who have children diagnosed with extremely rare diseases have confronted the same challenges I have faced. When your child is diagnosed with a fatal, devastating and progressive disease, and you’re told there is nothing you can do to help them, you have pretty limited options. You can find some level of acceptance and try to build a new life which includes the diagnosis and prognosis, or you can choose to ignore the doctors and try to  change the course of the disease. No choice is better or worse than the other, and this is a very personal decision. Both roads may even end up leading you to the same place. I could not find a way to accept the diagnosis, so I chose to follow the second path. I thought about nothing else. I was consumed with the idea that if I raised enough money for experimental medical interventions, my son would not only live but one day walk, talk and lead a healthy life. Helping Max became my life’s work, my mission, my passion and my way of life. In order to do this, I had to set out on a journey to cure Canavan disease. For me there was no other way. As my efforts gained momentum and garnered attention from the media, I was urged by many people and organizations to align myself with other diseases in order to help more people and potentially raise even more money. I was urged to stray from my mission of curing one “tiny,” unknown disease and focus more on rare disease, genetic diseases, Jewish diseases, allied diseases, or leukodystrophies. At that time, there were already many existing umbrella organizations focusing on groups of diseases, and not one of them had ever been able get a single clinical trial for Canavan disease. I felt a laser beam of focus on one tiny disease was my best and fastest option to move medicine ahead more quickly towards something to help my own son. This is why I am a selfish parent. I would love to save every child living with every similar disease, but realistically, I have been able to make more of a difference for more children by choosing to focus solely on Canavan disease. We have developed a Canavan cocktail of medications and orchestrated two gene therapy trials for Canavan disease. These successes were only possible with an extremely narrow area of focus. I know I am not alone. There are countless diseases that require the same type of single-minded mission to find a cure. Sometimes there is no one else willing to do this job except for the parents. That’s why I believe sometimes it’s OK to be selfish as a parent.