Adventures in Physical Therapy

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Given that I’ve had a disability my entire life, you’d think that I’d be fully-immersed in all medical-related things. But, that’s just not true. For example, despite my love for WebMD and Wikipedia, I’m not familiar with every pharmaceutical brand on the market. I don’t know the best medication for type 2 diabetes or psoriatic arthritis. But, from the commercials that I’ve seen on television, each of the available medications have potential side effects that include temporary blindness, liver damage, suicidal thoughts and/or heart failure. It’s an uplifting assortment of options.

Anyway, while I do know a lot about stuff related to Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), there’s a lot of other things that I don’t know. Stuff that, as an outsider, you’d think would be an everyday part of my life.

Like physical therapy.

This statement might come as a bit of a surprise. You might be thinking, “You mean the crippled girl doesn’t go to physical therapy every day? What a slacker! How does she expect to get better if she doesn’t do that??”

Here’s the thing: until I began Spinraza treatments last year, the expectation that I could maintain or improve my strength was pretty much a non-starter. An impossibility. A don’t-even-dream-about-it kind of thing. You know, like thinking that Kanye West will ever not be super weird?

This isn’t to say my physical therapists in the 1980s didn’t try their damndest to make this not be so. Defying the laws and biology of SMA, my childhood therapist pushed and shoved me into standing boxes to straighten my curving back. They placed heavy, painful weights on my legs and hips to try to reverse my irreversible muscle contractures. They tried to push my body into doing things that it just simply couldn’t do. They weren’t intending to be cruel, but their understanding of SMA at this time just wasn’t very advanced. They pushed more than they should have. They expected more from me than I could physically deliver. They were doing what they thought was best, though. But, these good intentions didn’t mean that this period of my life still wasn’t an utter hell on earth.

My confidence took a beating at this time, as well. It was hard not to feel that way when my inability to continue to participate in these physical therapy sessions was seen as a result of my laziness– and not the natural progression of my disability. The fault was with my motivation and my drive. Not the fact that it was an excruciating torment to endure… with no progress to show for it. In fact, the opposite happened. I progressed anyway. As all of us with SMA have done. It’s biology. Not laziness.

It’s perhaps not surprising that I eventually became withdrawn during these physical therapy sessions… and then increasingly uncooperative. Finally, it got to the point where during designated therapy time, I would hide in corners of the elementary school so the therapist couldn’t find me.

It was the biggest act of rebellion I had ever pursued up until that point. And it was also a moment in my life when I felt the most unheard.

Those gut-clenching moments remain with me to this day. I’ll always be that anxious little girl in the school physical therapy room, even though it was over twenty years ago.

So, it is with the baggage of those memories that I’ve recently reentered the world of physical therapy. My revolutionary Spinraza treatments have led to some small improvements in my strength and stamina. Which, given the progressiveness of SMA, is fucking awesome.

As I’ve written here before, I’ve been doing some informal exercises at home since beginning treatment. And it’s been very helpful. But, my Stanford medical team advised me that it was time to take it up a notch. So, I was referred to a local physical therapist to develop a custom exercise plan.

Yesterday was my very first consultation. I’m not gonna pretend that I wasn’t nervous. That I wasn’t worried that the physical therapist was going to push me too far beyond my ability because he didn’t have an understanding of SMA (like my old therapist all those years ago). Or, that I wasn’t dreading the whole experience… the way Trump dreads a wind tunnel.

So, what did I do? I did what any self-respecting Type A person like myself would do. I obsessively prepared for my appointment by typing up an information sheet for the therapist about me, about SMA, and why I was there in the first place. I also harassed the receptionist with warning calls that I would perhaps be a high-maintenance patient. Not like the everyday car accident victims and torn rotator cuff patients that they saw everyday. I would be a whole bundle of crippleness. The person that, when presented with a new patient form, would circle the ENTIRE BODY as an indicator of where I’m having trouble.

I’m sure my neuroses were quite evident in my voice on the phone. And I’m certain that this left an impression on the poor receptionist because when I rolled into the office, she instantly called me by my first name— despite the fact we had never met.

I filled out more medical history forms. And I had to resist adding smart-ass remarks in the margins. How could I not answer the question “How long have you had this issue?” with a sarcastic reference to the Reagan Administration?

I only have so much willpower, after all.

When the physical therapist, John, came over a few minutes later, though, he was remarkably calm. And, despite my fears, he didn’t look like a deer in the headlights when faced with probably the most disabled patient he had ever encountered.

I wasn’t a truck driver with a case of whiplash. I was a whole-lotta-weird with muscles that behaved in ways you wouldn’t expect. (Come to think of it, also kinda like Kanye West.)

John quickly admitted that he had never encountered SMA before. (Most medical professionals actually haven’t– this is not unusual.) But, that fact didn’t stop a gleam of excitement from entering behind his eyes. I recognized the same look in his gaze that I would get back in 1990 when I got a brand new set of Legos. The look that Ina Garten still gets when you flop a freshly-caught, raw sea bass on her kitchen table.

The look that says: “Oh, boy! This is way more fun than a hip replacement!”

I’m happy to report that he asked all the right questions… he was engaged and interested. And incredibly collaborative. It was just the experience that I had been hoping it would be.

I was being heard.

And, for that, I was so very grateful.

For the time being, I’ll be heading to physical therapy once a week, so stay tuned for more updates on my progress. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m strangely looking forward to it!

I do wish there was a way that I could have told that to my ten-year-old self, though. That the experience didn’t have to be the way I endured it… and that it could have been much, much better.

Maybe then I wouldn’t have had a reason to hide.

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How To Be Rocky Balboa

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Since I’ve begun my Spinraza journey, I undergo periodic assessments that measure my muscle and respiratory function. These assessments are quite exhaustive and make even the SATs look easy— you know, like one of those “personality quizzes” that you find online? The ones that tell you whether your personality resembles a baked potato or a goat cheese flatbread?

Anyway, these assessments can be brutal. Every tiniest movement and tiniest muscle is measured. And then measured again. This thoroughness isn’t just meant to drive a person loony (which it can), it’s for scientific purposes. Mainly to see how this crazy-expensive treatment is actually working.

I’ve seen measurable improvements since beginning treatment, that’s indisputable. This is amazing given the progressive nature of Spinal Muscular Atrophy. After all, merely slowing or halting progression is also a substantial goal. So, seeing an improvement is a bonus.

But, with the need for these assessments comes a unintended side effect for the patient— stress, worry and anxiety. When you’ve fought long and hard to receive the drug (while many wait all around the world to have access to it), you’re terribly frightened of having it taken away. There’s an unspoken need to prove yourself during these assessments. To prove that you are worth this expensive treatment. To prove that all of us with SMA are worth it. That’s a lot of pressure. Especially to a person like me that is already competitive. A person like me that breaks out into hives if they aren’t scoring in the 90th percentile.

My outstanding medical team has attempted to calm these fears and anxieties. They’ve told me to not put pressure on myself. But, I know that the data from assessments, like mine, are being compiled into a study that will be used to potentially help (or hinder) adults with SMA around the world in their fight for treatment. So, I know it does matter. Despite how much they may try to allay my anxieties.

Recently, I headed to Stanford for another assessment. Like a prizefighter, I had been prepping for weeks beforehand. There were a few tasks that I had been unable to perform in my prior assessments that I was determined to master this time around. Mainly, tearing a folded piece of paper and opening a small plastic container with a snug lid.

The looming nature of those tasks were swimming around in my mind in the waiting room as I nibbled on my turkey sandwich.

Please let me tear that fucking piece of paper. I’m gonna be so pissed if I can’t do it.

What if I get performance anxiety? There’s no Viagra for paper-tearing.

Ugh, what if I can’t open that container, either?? Dude, if that happens I’m gonna run over the damn thing with my wheelchair. Just see if I won’t.

This internal dialogue continued in my mind until, thankfully, the physical therapist came to take me for my first assessment. In the PT room, all the assorted gizmos were laid out on a table. At the sight of the tiny weights, containers and charts, my heart started to beat faster— making me exceedingly glad that I had taken a tiny Xanax thirty minutes before (in between bites of my aforementioned turkey sandwich).

But, before the therapist could give the first instruction, I blurted out: “I’m really nervous about this. I even took a Xanax a few minutes ago. I’ve been practicing opening a container and tearing a folded piece of paper at home. I really, really want points for those tasks.

The therapist arched an amused eyebrow, “Oh, I definitely remember how you feel about getting points.

During my last assessment, I nearly held her hostage until she allowed me one more chance to earn the one point I was determined to get. It wasn’t my proudest moment. There might have even been tears (not sure if they were hers or mine, though). It’s a good thing she has a good sense of humor. Otherwise, I think I would have seemed pathetic.

It’s going to be fine. You really shouldn’t worry—”

I interrupted her, “I brought with me a stack of paper that I’ve already torn at home as evidence that I can actually do it. It’s in my backpack if you’d like to see it.

Laughter pulled at the corner of her mouth, “Uhm… yeah…” She paused and looked at me as if she was suddenly REALLY glad that I did take that Xanax, after all. “I’ll just pretend you didn’t say that.

Are you sure? I mean, I can totally show you—”

No, no. Let’s just not.

And so, the assessment began. My range of motion was checked. I was asked to squeeze and poke various technical devices— each measuring the strength in various muscles of my arms and hands. I was asked to lift coins and weights of various sizes. I was asked to pull a rabbit out of a hat. (Okay, I might have made that last one up.)

Things were going really smoothly when she grabbed the dreaded plastic container. “Okay, now it’s time for this,” she waved it in front of me as if the motion could magically stop the sweat from collecting in my palms.

I grabbed it. Yanked. Pulled. Strained.

And nothing happened. I began to panic—the litany of anxiety returning to pound into my head like the clanging of a 1950s typewriter.

Sensing my emotions, the therapist took the container and set it on the table in front of me, “How about we come back to that?

She then folded a piece of paper and handed it to me to tear in half. My attention was still so focused on the plastic container that I had the paper torn halfway down the middle before I realized that I had actually done it.

My heart raced in joy as I finished tearing the paper. Then, I slammed the two halves down on the table like Rocky Balboa.

Ha!” My cry was loud and victorious. Sylvester Stallone could kiss my butt. (Actually… Eww, no. Maybe not. He’s old and he’s taken way too many steroids over the years.)

Feeling more confident, I demanded, “Give me that container back so I can try again!

And you know what?

Nothing fucking happened.

I still couldn’t open it. My mood plummeted as I watched the physical therapist write a “0” on the assessment for the task of opening the container.

My inner soul cried, “NOOOOOOOOO!”

I hadn’t been this upset since the original DuckTales animated series was cancelled back in 1990. I was despondent. Even though I had torn the paper, it wasn’t enough. I wanted that container. I needed that container.

The assessment was over. As the physical therapist walked away briefly, I glanced once more time at that damn piece of plastic. With my sorrow, I felt all the muscles in my body relax.

I was defeated. With a sigh, I absently grabbed the container. And, before I knew it, I had removed the lid.

My mouth dropped open in shock. I had done it.

But, the physical therapist was on the other side of the large therapy room. She didn’t see me do it. It was like scoring a perfect 10. Only not at the Olympics where it truly mattered.

I sputtered, “OH MY GOD, GET OVER HERE NOW! LOOK AT THIS!”

When the therapist returned, I quickly did it again. I was suddenly a Ziploc Plastic Container Opening Machine.

I’m going to get points for this, right? Right?” I knew I sounded frantic, but I didn’t really care.

She chuckled, “Yes, you will.”

I wasn’t fully satisfied. Not after all I had put myself through. “While I’m not saying that I don’t trust you, I’d really like to see you write it down. Right here in front of my face where I can see you do it.

If it will make you feel better?

Oh, it will. I promise you.

She grabbed her pen and changed the “0” to a “1.” It was the most beautiful number I had ever seen.

Ha!” My cry was loud and victorious.

Maybe Rocky could kiss my ass, after all.

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Febreze, Special Sauce & Spinal Injection #7

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I had my 7th dose of Spinraza this week. You’d think I’d be a pro at this by now— but, unfortunately, receiving a complex lumbar puncture isn’t something you can train for… unlike a marathon or a really competitive game of backgammon. I actually don’t even know how to play backgammon, but it sounds like something that sophisticated people would do. Like playing bridge. Or committing white collar crimes.

Anyway, when you have a wonky and complex anatomy like mine, each injection is its own story. Its own event. A prior injection can’t, in any way, predict the outcome of the next. Just because one injection was easy, that doesn’t mean that the next can’t be a fucking disaster. I’m sure if you’re the parent of a toddler you will completely understand this concept. After all, while your child may behave on one trip to Target, that doesn’t mean that the next time he won’t pull an entire display of Febreze on top of his head.

As I shared on this blog previously, my last injection was a challenge. So, I went into this treatment with open eyes, and the reasonable expectation that there could be copious tears at some point in the day. (Just hopefully not the doctor’s.)

Anyway, the drive to Palo Alto was decidedly uneventful— the sky shifting from Central Valley smoke and haze, to a Bay Area overcast. But, as we got off the bridge and arrived to the Neuroscience Center, the morning sun opened up and a cool, slightly crisp (dare I say, even fall-like?!?) air met my skin. If you know me, you’d know how much I love the autumn. So, I tried not to let this omen get my hopes up for how the day would turn out. I told myself, “Elizabette, calm down. There’s still plenty of time for you to be the kid with the Febreze on their head.

While waiting for the procedure, a research associate came and asked me if they could save the spinal fluid they collect from me for scientific purposes. I clearly like science, so I signed the paper and said YES. After all, it’s not like I am going to take my spinal fluid home and put it in a jar by my bed. That would be creepy. Besides, I have no room for it on my nightstand, anyway. That’s where I keep all my photos of George Clooney.

By this point, I really started to have to pee. As I have to hydrate a lot in the days before the injection, my bladder was holding a crap ton of urine. When I say that, I’m actually not kidding. Lucky for me, I think I was given the bladder of a much larger primate. Like a gorilla. Or Tom Hanks from A League of Their Own. You know that scene in the movie where he takes a drunken piss in the locker room urinal? And his pee goes on for over a minute? Yeah, I can totally do that.

Anyway, I was secretly hoping that the research associate would hurry up and go away so that I could get to the point of the morning where I got to use the restroom. If she didn’t skedaddle when she did, I would have probably signed away my own pancreas just to get her to leave. I think I could have found a way to make due without it.

Thankfully, it didn’t come to that, so I was able to go empty my mega-bladder in fairly short order before being taken back to the procedure room. After I was laid on the table, on my left side, the doctors began taking measurements on my back— to try to locate the ONE open spot in my spine. The only part that isn’t obstructed by the two scoliosis rods nestled along my vertebrae. They fired quick x-rays to line up their needle approach.

Watching the big fluoroscopy machine as it swiveled and swung around me, gathering images, and listening to the doctors strategize on their game plan, I started to feel a rumble in my stomach. Even though it was only 10am, lunch was beginning to sound really good to me.

Thinking about food is one of my favorite things to do. In fact, I daresay I like it even more than pumpkin spice lattes and making jokes about Donald Trump. And that should say a lot since I like those things VERY much.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that, at this point, my mind began to wander. So consumed by the thought of food, I didn’t notice the giant needle slide into my spine and the sting of the lidocaine that numbed the passage. Instead, I imagined the In N Out Burger that I suddenly wanted to eat. And the stack of smothered “animal style” fries that I would get along the side. Over the scent of hospital antiseptic, I could taste that damn special sauce that I love so much.

It wasn’t long before I started drooling on the sterile pillow. I wish I could say that I made this last bit up, but I didn’t. I literally left a puddle on the light blue fabric. It was kind of gross.

Anyway, so distracted by my thoughts, I gave a jolt when the needle penetrated into my spinal canal and a zing of cold sensation flew down my right hip. Immediately afterward, the attending doctor proudly announced, “Here it is” as my spinal fluid dribbled out of the needle— evidence of the procedure’s success. They collected some fluid (for their aforementioned research purposes) and then injected in the Spinraza.

Seconds later, the procedure was done and the needle was out. Dazed by the speed with which it had all happened and still in a haze of pickles and grilled onions, I asked, “Wait, how long have I been here??

The nurse laughed, “Only about 20 minutes. This is a record time!

I was thrilled. I was definitely NOT going to be the kid with Febreze on their head this time. My stomach grumbled loudly, again, sensing that lunchtime was suddenly going to be a whole lot sooner than usual.

They helped me off the procedure table, and as they wheeled my bed back to my room, the nurse asked, “So, what are you going to do with the rest of your day?

It was the question I had been waiting to answer.

I’m going to In N Out!

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The World’s Slowest Confetti-Maker

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Tearing a folded piece of paper is not something that most people put much thought into. In fact, folks probably do it all the time without thinking of the physical effort that such a motion takes. Especially if it’s thick computer paper— the fancy kind that you can only buy at an office store. The tangible, professional-grade that big banks, mega-corporations and white-collar criminals use right before fucking over a bunch of middle-class homeowners. Or stealing the identities of poor old people that don’t know that Windows isn’t just something that you cover with drapes.

For those of us with SMA, tearing a folded piece of paper may actually be hard… if not impossible. Prior to beginning my Spinraza treatments, it was a task that I had not been able to do in a very long time. Not even the thinner type of paper that you buy at the dollar store. The kind they sell next to the cheap neon highlighters that smell like meth.

But, this ability is tested during the very-important PT assessments that measure my progress with Spinraza. While it seems an odd thing to test, it’s actually a good measure of hand strength and changes in grip. I’ve had two assessments so far, and I could not complete this particular task on either try— which royally pissed me off. As I’ve demonstrated before, I’m not the kind of person that does well with failure. If there’s an exam, I had better get an A. And if I don’t, I will not be happy about it and I will work myself into a damn tizzy to score better the next time. If you know me at all, you’ll understand that this is not an exaggeration. In fact, you’ve probably also worried that at some point I’m going to give myself an ulcer.

Next month, I will undergo another full PT assessment, which means that I will be confronted with that piece of paper. And, I really don’t want to fail that task once again. I don’t want to be a sad loser like the Mets or Hillary Clinton. So, yesterday, I began to practice this task. Fiendishly. Surprisingly, after about seven minutes, I achieved victory. I tore that damned piece of paper in half. And then, about twelve minutes later, I did it again. I was so happy that it didn’t seem to matter that I was sweating through my Secret Powder Fresh deodorant.

Today, in the time it took to watch two episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, I tore a piece of paper FIVE FUCKING TIMES. If you don’t believe me, here’s a picture of the paper:

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If you’re wondering how long it actually took me in real-time (not Netflix-time), it was about 30 minutes. So, roughly six minutes per tear in the paper. Although, I did two of the tears in less than 30 seconds— which, interestingly enough, is the same duration of President Trump’s attention-span.

I’ve got several more weeks to prepare for my next assessment, so wish me luck. Maybe, if I keep at it, I will no longer be the world’s slowest confetti-maker.

A girl can dream…

August Awareness and Lots of Stretchy Pants

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August is known for many things. Even though most summer vacations are ending, it’s still a month when the heat is blistering and the yucky air has that palpable, tangible quality… like an dog’s fart. Also, schools open this month and all the pumpkin spice food products will begin to appear in stores.

If you think it’s too early for it, you aren’t alone. Even though I have a well-developed love for pumpkin spiced lattes, I don’t want to drink one while it’s still 100 degrees outside. I don’t care if there’s a chance that my sweat could smell like an autumnal wonderland. It’s still not worth it.

August is also Spinal Muscular Atrophy Awareness Month. The month that celebrates and brings awareness to the 1 in 10,000 babies born (including me!) with a really peculiar— and often deadly— genetic glitch called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). While the condition is rare, 1 in 50 people running around this earth are actually genetic carriers. But, since it’s a recessive condition, it takes two of these carriers getting together to produce a child with SMA. Even then, only 25% of children of those unions will even have the condition.

If you are confused by this scientific explanation of recessive genetics, you weren’t fortunate enough to have had the late Mr. Eugene Field as a biology teacher at Patterson High School. I feel sorry for you if you missed out on his amazing greatness. I guess you’ll have to make due with looking it up on Wikipedia, instead.

Anyway, until very recently, a diagnosis of SMA was practically a death sentence. While advancements in medical care have allowed many of us to beat the odds and thrive long into adulthood, there was really nothing science could do to treat the condition itself. But, that is changing. For the past year, I’ve been receiving a gene-splicing treatment called Spinraza that boosts my production of a protein that my body is lacking. I’ve written extensively about my treatment journey on this blog. I’m happy to report that more treatments for SMA are on the horizon in the coming years, too.

Awareness months, like this one for SMA, serve an important purpose. They garner attention to the cause and provide a catalyst for fundraising. Many other medical conditions and diseases have their own awareness months, too. I’m sure many of you have taken part in such events. And that’s fantastic. After all, these are vital tools for generating donations for research. But, while raising money for a “cure” is very important, we mustn’t forget that we have to also support those living with these conditions, too.

We have to make sure that there are services and infrastructures available to help those currently living and fighting these conditions— and their families. As someone on the other side of this, I must say that I occasionally cringe a little when I see so many fundraising efforts with simple, pithy titles about running and walking for cures. Sometimes I feel like they miss the point. After all, before we can get to the moment when someone could possibly be “cured,” there will be a lot more time spent with the person needing support and helpful resources.

Let’s be honest, from a practical point-of-view, a “Walk for a Cure” isn’t really going to do a patient much good if they don’t have a way to get to their doctor appointments. Let alone if they don’t have personal care assistance in their homes or even nutritious food on their table.

And, I don’t mean to be a killjoy, but you know that 5k Run for Cure you did last year? The one where you wore those new $85 running pants from Lululemon? Yeah, that run is probably not going to help that rural woman in Kansas afford the pharmacy copay on the anti-nausea pills that she needs during chemo.

I don’t mean to imply that these fundraising efforts are useless. Nothing could be further from the truth. These events and funds are incredibly important. So, keep on running in your crazy expensive stretchy pants. But, while you’re doing it, remember that there’s more that we can do.

Awareness means more than a “cure.” It’s about living in community— together. Helping each other. Whether it’s August, or any other month of the year.

Until then, Happy August… and happy running.

xoxo

Happy Spinrazaversary to Me!

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One year ago, today, I had my very first spinal injection of Spinraza— the first-ever FDA approved treatment for my disability, Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). Life was a lot different one year ago. First of all, I was worth a hell of a lot less money at that point. My spinal fluid didn’t have 6 vials of super-sonic, super-expensive Spinraza floating around inside of it. You know, the way the miniaturized Dennis Quaid floated through Martin Short’s body in the 80s movie, Innerspace? One year ago, I was a body that was decidedly pre-bionic. Dennis Quaid’s tiny spaceship would not fly out of my nose if I sneezed. Now, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if my boogers had diamonds inside. Yes, I’m that pricey now.

As I have shared here previously, it was a long, hard-fought battle to gain access to this drug, and I’m lucky to have a spectacular medical team at Stanford Neuroscience that helped to make this possible. I wish I could say that all adults with SMA have such outstanding advocates for care as I do. But, we still have a long way to go to make this current treatment, and all the upcoming treatments coming down the pharmaceutical pipeline, available and accessible to all those living with my rare, genetic condition.

But, my Spinraza journey didn’t end at the point of that lumbar puncture needle one year ago today. Rather, it really had just begun. Given the complexities of getting the long needle through my crooked, and fused anatomy, each injection since that July day has been a tiny battle of wills. A mental and physical game where I prepare like a seasoned warrior. A soldier that knows that the upcoming battle could be a smooth victory just as easily as it could be a giant shit show. You know, like a Trump/Putin press conference?

However, these hardships (and there have been many!) have been worth it. In the 365 days since that magic vial’s liquid have begun to do their work, I have had measurable improvements. Given that this neuromuscular disability is progressive, even merely slowing or halting the natural deterioration is a victory. To have improvements, like I have seen, is more than I could have hoped to achieve. Especially as an adult with SMA. I had never thought I’d live to see a treatment that could help me. It’s hard to mentally process… to put your brain around. You know, just like it’s hard to process pickle-flavored ice cream, self-driving cars, and why the hell we Americans can’t figure out the metric system.

I look forward to what the future holds for my Spinraza journey, yet, I eagerly anticipate what medical science has in-store for those of us, of all ages, with SMA. I’ve heard that there are more treatments currently in the trial and research phase. Perhaps, one day, I will have additional cause to celebrate.

Until then, if I sneeze, please excuse the diamonds.

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