"I remember like yesterday the day she was born. It was June 16, 2001. We were driving to the hospital in the middle of the night so I could be with Jennifer for the birth of her first baby. It was going to be a girl and we were so excited!"
Most people, if not all, have heard the term Gold Star family. These are the families that have lost a son or daughter that was serving in the military during a time of war. They have lost their loved ones in battle or as a result of enemy aggression. I have written on more than one occasion about the amount of respect that I have for those who have placed themselves in harm's way for the service of our country. I am an advocate for children that face rare diseases but I am also very much a supporter of our military. Although free time is scarce these days, I enjoy reading war stories. I suppose that I always will.
I know that it is risky to draw a comparison using Gold Star families but I don’t think that it will be disrespectful in this case. Parents that see their children go into battle live with the stress that comes with uncertainty and the possibility of great loss. The sacrifice is given by those who have died in service to country, but it becomes the sacrifice of the families once the battle is over. Yes, a comparison can be drawn. There is another type of family that has Gold Star status with me. That is the families that face having a child with a rare and fatal disease. The battle with Batten disease, of course, comes to mind. The journey that these families take together becomes a battle in many ways. It requires the courage to carry on under very trying circumstances. With me, these families have a certain status. Yes, it is never one that would be sought after. It is not a status that would be wished on anyone. Having this status always results in having a broken heart that can’t be completely mended. Not on this side of eternity.
What my special needs son Benjamin has is not necessarily fatal. We just don’t know what his longevity will be. While most people our age are enjoying the benefits of being Empty Nesters, we are still parenting. We care for a person that will never be able to completely care for himself. There are sacrifices that we have made in order to have this teddy bear of a guy in our house. There are financial sacrifices, as well as, others. I’m not bragging and I am not complaining. You know what? Benjamin is an awesome human being and he brings us so much joy. There is absolutely no way that I would do things differently. The love that we have for this guy constrains us and we will do for him whatever it takes for as long as we are able to. Likewise, the parents of children and young adults with Batten disease are constrained by the love that they have for their children. For the parent of a child with a Batten disease, the sacrifices are so much greater than what we have faced. Batten families all have Gold Star status with me. I mean, what is it like to be told that your child has a disease that is fatal and for which there is no cure, no treatment?
The way that you all care for your kids through all the stages that can be so devastating. Yes, in some cases, there is room for optimism but change is too slow in coming. Upon being given the news of the diagnoses you are completely devastated. You then pick yourselves up and begin to provide your child the best possible care. You provide them with everything that is needed to make their lives as normal as possible and you make sure that they experience everything that makes life worth living. You are there with them, every step along the way. Undying love is demonstrated through your actions. Throughout the journey, and as the difficulty increases, you take whatever action is necessary. The respect and admiration that I have for you grows with each story that I am allowed to tell. I get drawn into the details and I do the best that I can to feel what you feel. Just like with any book that one might read, a person tries to place themselves at the scene. I don’t mean to be overly dramatic here. I am just saying that I try to relate to what you as Batten families go through as you travel down the road you have to travel. It doesn’t matter if you have a child that is still in the battle, or one that has gained their reward. Either way, you have Gold Star status with me. This blog has become, in large part, my way to honor children and young adults that face Batten disease. I want to honor their families as well for the sacrifices they make.
Quiet Beauty and Grace
This next story is meant to honor a young lady named Montanna and her family as well. The first time that I saw Montanna was in a short video that her grandmother Joan had posted on Facebook. It was taken at Montanna’s Sweet 16 Birthday party. The video portrayed a picture of quiet beauty and grace of the rarest kind. That video had the awe factor for me. It was at that point that I felt I would love to have Montanna in this blog, and I am so happy that it has come about! I am no expert on having a teenage daughter as we are parents to three boys (grown men actually). I do, however, have an idea what it would be like to have a daughter who has just turned Sweet 16. She is her parents pride and joy. She is that and much more. She is the apple of her daddy’s eye and his prized possession. She is also a source of anxiety for dad as it is at this time that the boys start knocking at the front door. "Hello Mr. Kaiser! Is Montanna home?" Some of the adolescent tendencies are starting to disappear as she is on her way to maturity. Her and mom are starting to see eye to eye on some things and they look together at what might be achieved.
The relationship deepens and mom is given access to her daughter’s goals and aspirations which are her dreams for the future. High school graduation and college are not that far away. This story is a little different in some respects although it is every bit as sweet, If not sweeter. This is Montanna’s story. Montanna Marie Kaiser was born at River Falls Hospital in River Falls, Wisconsin. The big event took place on June 16, 2001 at exactly 7:03 am. Montanna would not be the first of her generation born to this proud family from the Badger State. Her grandmother, Joan Avery, told me that at the time she was born, there were already three grand-kids in the family. They were, however, all boys and the family looked forward to having a new baby girl in their midst. Nick and Jennifer Kaiser were so happy to be starting their family. They took turns holding their new baby girl in their arms and they were so excited. They had achieved many of their goals for starting their careers and life together. They wanted a family as well and the beginning of their dreams came true in a tiny package. She was so perfect. So complete. She had all her fingers and toes and she was covered in brand new pink baby skin. Oh, my gosh!
The young couple brought their new baby girl home to their little house in Hammond, Wisconsin. They were ready for her and she had her own, special place in the family’s home. Their excitement was felt and shared by an entire family. They would join them in making a lot of memories with Montanna as she continued to grow. That’s what families do. Jennifer would tell me that Montanna was a “pretty good baby overall”. Every new person brings their own little challenges and Montanna would be no exception. She was a very busy toddler and was given the nickname “Houdini” by her parents. This “because she was there one minute and gone the next”. Mom said that Montanna had met most of her milestones on time as she continued to develop. She even began to take flight at ten and a half months. You know what I mean, right? Montanna’s grandma Joan looks back to the day that Montanna first came into the world. She stated all that she felt at the time in this way, “when she finally made her appearance we began to dream....big dreams. Not just the normal walking, talking, going to school dreams but things like Gymnastics (like her mom), grade school, middle school, high school sports. Also, things like cheer leading, dances, youth groups, Homecoming and football games. And eventually, prom and dress shopping, graduation, then, on to college, engagement, Bridal showers and Wedding, baby showers. It just goes on.”
Those are big dreams, but why not dream big. After all Montanna’s mom had achieved much in life. She had competed in Gymnastics from age 5 all the way through college as she attended the University of Wisconsin Stout. In fact Jennifer would go on to coach at the competitive level for all of her adult life. Why would you not expect that the same could be possible for little Montanna? Things continued to move ahead and Montanna would begin to go to preschool. She absolutely loved going there and her parents were so proud. Montanna could not wait to go each morning as she awakened from her sleep. She did very well for the first year. The second year things began to change. Montanna would become more withdrawn and she no longer wanted to go at all. According to Jennifer, she literally had to be held onto as they went out the door. Jennifer felt at the time that perhaps she was just suffering from separation anxiety. Maybe there was someone that Montanna didn’t like. The family didn’t know at the time but this was the beginning of further challenges that lay ahead.
It was in Kindergarten that Montanna’s teacher noticed that she was having a problem that was affecting her learning. She thought that Montanna was possibly having an issue with tracking from the overhead back to her desk. She also felt that a trip to the eye doctor was a good idea. The Kaiser's would bring her to two different doctors. Jennifer stated that the first doctor felt that there was nothing wrong with Montanna’s eyes. He thought that there may just be a problem with her attention span. The second doctor was another story altogether. Jennifer said that seeing this doctor turned out to be the worst experience to date. She spoke about the entire incident in this way, “The doctor did all the necessary tests needed that they could do at their clinic. He then proceeded to tell me that she wanted attention and I needed to wake up because she was pulling the wool right over my eyes and she was very disobedient! She was naughty ... because she was trying to tell us something but didn't know how!” Jennifer had walked into the appointment feeling confident that they may find an answer but instead left defeated and in tears. It is just my opinion but this doctor was completely out of line. He had no business making these assumptions. Just DO YOUR JOB and do it with compassion! The details in this family's story may be different than in the others in some respects.There are, however, always similar frustrations for any parent seeking answers from the medical community. These are Jennifer’s exact words after her experience with the second eye doctor, “I walked out of there so defeated and feeling like I didn't know my child at all. I felt like how could two educated parents be so uneducated about their 5 year old!”
As already stated, This is a different story about another family from a different place. This is the Avery - Kaiser family’s story. Although different in many of the details, there are so many things that they share in common with the other families as they looked for answers. Things like doctors who do not have an answer, misdiagnoses, and long periods of waiting for answers. Yes, in fact they shared much in common with many other families. More time would pass and the difficulties continued. According to Jennifer, Montanna was at that time very hyper and hard to handle. She continued to have difficulties at school. A small amount of progress would be made as a result of a recommendation. Someone had suggested that Montanna be brought to an eye clinic in Hudson, Wisconsin. Jennifer told me that they specialized in “just a bit more than most eye clinics”.
The couple took this advice, and this time, Nick and Jennifer both went to the appointment with Montana. She received a lot of different tests and the family received a referral to see a retinal specialist at the University of Minnesota. They left feeling that at least they had a plan in place and this, I am sure, gave them some sense of relief. Jennifer would tell me that this led to many different appointments to the university hospital. In the end, Montanna would be diagnosed with Rod/Cone Dystrophy. This condition affects the rod and cone photoreceptors in the eyes. The disease most always leads to blindness in a child. This news would account for the difficulties stemming from Montanna’s eyesight issue. It would not, however, be the complete answer. While they were there, testing was performed for Batten Disease. I have to say that I applaud the staff for just knowing that was a possibility for her. The family would have to wait all summer long between Montanna’s kindergarten and first grade year to receive the results. In the end, they got the word that everything was negative. No Batten Disease.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in the area of testing that is performed for Batten. I do know that it can be difficult to diagnose and I have read about false negative findings before. Can you imagine the difficulty of dealing with a disease in a child when there is not a true diagnoses? The symptoms continue to develop, but you are left with not knowing what you are dealing with! Jennifer said that the family was thrilled that it was only Montanna’s eyes that were affected, however, their optimism was based on incomplete information. In fact, those responsible for the testing never finished doing all the tests needed for determining the right diagnoses. Montanna’s eyesight would continue to decline. Jennifer told me that other than Montanna’s vision, there was not a lot of other things that declined with her health over the next few years. She did, however, continue to have difficulties in her learning as she attended school. It was there that she would work with a few vision specialists. They were part of Montanna’s journey, but according to her mom, they were not a good fit for her. Montanna’s treatment would have to include medication for ADHD as her behavior was too crazy and impulsive. Jennifer said that without the meds she wouldn’t have gotten a thing done. Perhaps if her parents and the school staff knew what they were dealing with, they could have taken some different measures for Montanna’s education.
They could, however, only act on what they knew at the time. The constant attention required and all the decision making had to have an impact on this family. One of my own sons had similar difficulties while in school. In fact he was also on meds for ADHD. Although we couldn’t have done things much differently at the time, there were many distractions. I personally had to attend a lot of meetings and doctor appointments. I have to believe the dreams that Grandma Joan originally had for Montanna’s future really represented the feelings shared by the entire family. With the diagnoses of Rod Cone Dystrophy and all subsequent issues taking place, a lot of those dreams must have seemed out of reach at that point. I am sure that the new emphasis was to just figure out what would work the best for Montanna in helping her to be successful at school and in life. There was, however, more challenging things to come.
Jennifer would tell me that it was sometime during Montanna’s 5th or 6th School year that things really started to decline for her. By this time she had completely lost her sight. The way that Montanna walked became more like a foot slide or shuffle instead of an actual step. By the 7th grade her speech had become greatly affected and she was difficult to understand. In Jennifer’s words, “We had to work hard at learning her new way of saying things.” By the 8th grade the family decided that there were just too many things that were changing with Montanna’s health. It was at that time that they decided to take her back to the University of Minnesota. There was a new Retinal Specialist on staff at that time. The doctor examined her eyes but also asked her to do some other things in addition.
I personally would want to applaud this doctor for knowing what to do but that doesn’t make what Jennifer heard any less alarming. Jennifer put it to me like this, “He rolled his chair right over to me and looked me straight in the eyes and said, “I think we need to make an appointment with the Geneticist. I think we are dealing with something like Battens Disease.” There it was. That words we heard so very many years before! REALLY! SERIOUSLY! We went down this road once before and now, here we go again!” It is difficult to get a timely appointment to see a Geneticist but the Kaiser’s found themselves with Montanna at the appointment just two weeks later. Jennifer told me that the same concerns that were voiced by the Retinal Specialist also came from the Geneticist. In fact Jennifer said that she heard “the same words.” The doctor made an appointment for Montanna to see the Neurologist and again they would all go together. The Neurologist felt that, for sure, that they were dealing with Batten disease in Montanna’s case. An EEG of Montanna’s brain was ordered and the results came back showing that her brain was not normal.
In the midst of all this, the Kaiser’s would have to deal with an insurance change. They found out that they would no longer be covered where Montanna was being seen. At the University of Minnesota. What may have been a large and untimely inconvenience actually turned out to be a good thing for Montanna. The family received all the necessary referrals for new doctors at the Rochester Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. According to Jennifer, it was there that things really started to move forward. It is no wonder. When you look at their website it will tell you that the Mayo Clinic is rated number one in the nation. The neurologist that Montanna saw at the Mayo Clinic is still the doctor that sees her today. The Kaiser’s really like this doctor. He ordered an MRI for Montanna and, unfortunately, it revealed what is normally seen in patients with Batten disease. It showed that in Montanna’s brain, there were areas that were shrinking. Jennifer would say that it was definitely not a normal 15 year old brain.
I have to believe that at this point, there was a mixture of feelings. There is no more guessing as to why her health was declining. Montanna had a degenerative disease that was causing all these issues. I am certain that as the family started to get the answers that they sought, they were overwhelmed with the reality of what the future would hold. Batten disease is a battle and it is not one that is fought quickly. The blessing of having Montanna with them was almost cut short by one event on a sunny August day a little over a year ago. It happened at the family swimming pool. The kids were all swimming and the moms were by the side of the pool. Montanna looked to be busy doing one of her favorite moves. You see, she enjoyed floating face down with her goggles on and her hair flowing down at her side. This is something that she did all the time. Jennifer continued to visit and a minute or so later, she looked back at Montanna who had not changed positions. Jennifer told Montanna’s sister Alexia to poke her and so she did. She said that Montanna then flipped over and as she did, she was completely blue in color! I thought that I would let Jennifer take over the story at this point by quoting her for the rest of the account,
A Traumatic Event
“Alexia screamed and both my friend and I jumped in the pool and frantically pulled her out of the pool and onto the deck. The kids were all crying and I screamed for Alexia to call 911. Montanna had NO pulse. My friend and I started CPR. It felt like soooo long but we got her breathing. My friend held her because she was kicking and screaming and moaning when she came to. I got onto the phone with the 911 operator and talked everything over with her until the ambulance got there. While I was on the phone with 911 my daughter Alexia face-timed her dad at Football practice. He never usually had his phone on him at practice but that day for some reason he did and felt like he should answer it. He dropped everything and sprinted to his car all while hearing the sirens starting and he knew that it was going to his home. Montanna went by ambulance to the Menomonie ER. They checked her over and did a chest x-ray etc.
She never coughed up water at any time during this. She was breathing fine and talking and looked to be just fine but the ER Doctor just felt for some reason they should have her stay over. He couldn't really give us a complete reason why, but just didn't feel quite right about letting her go home. We were admitted into the Hospital and we stayed the night .... The next morning they came and got Montanna to bring her to x-ray to check her lungs. While bringing her down to x-ray her heart rate dropped to almost nothing and she started to pass out. The doctor on call had an EKG ordered to see why this happened. He came in and explained to us that even though he was not a heart specialist he knew enough to know that her EKG was not normal and he had already sent it to Rochester Mayo. They had gotten back to him within 5 minutes and said this patient needed to be transferred there! Holy cow, what a turn of events. My husband went home to try and gather up clothes for us and her and followed the ambulance to Rochester Mayo in Rochester MN. We spent a week in the hospital there and Montanna ended up having an ICD (Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator) put in for her heart.” According to Jennifer, it was a scary experience and not one that she would want to repeat. I really can’t blame her there! She would also include the fact that having to give CPR to your own child is not something that she would wish on anyone. I am so happy that Montanna was okay and that she was able to return home with her family.
Jennifer said that they have seen a lot of decline in Montanna’s mobility over the last year. Although she is still walking, she has become unsteady on her feet at times. As if the challenges brought on by Montanna’s condition are not enough, the Kaiser’s have had to fight with their insurance company over something as simple as covering blood tests. It took eight months but Montanna, as well as Nick and Jennifer received the testing they had been seeking. It was finally determined that Montanna in fact has CLN3, or Juvenile Batten disease. The mystery has been taken out of the journey, but the journey continues and it can be a battle at times. Jennifer referred to this disease, which many are fighting, as “cruel and unfair”. Who could argue that is, in fact, the case. When it comes to dealing with Batten disease, it is easy for me to tell you what I think it would be like. I try to convey the thoughts and feelings of those who trust me in doing so while doing the best that I can to understand. When I think about families from places like the state of Wisconsin, some things come to mind. I think about tradition and hard work. I think about family values and togetherness. I could picture the entire family together at a high school football game on Friday night and then in front of the television on Sunday, watching the Green Bay Packers play. Holidays and the sharing of milestone events come to mind. Events like the time your daughter won big for the first time at a gymnastics competition. And yes, If there are teenage girls in the house, a Sweet 16 Birthday party.
Facing Batten Together
As I was searching through photo albums for pictures of Montanna, I was able to confirm what I had already suspected about this family. At least I can safely assume some things. These folks all appear to be very closely knit together. They go through successes and failures together. In good times and in times of struggle they share with each other and hold one another up. They are a family of which a young lady named Montanna will always be a part. Regardless of the time she spends on this planet, her presence will always be felt. She will always be there, even if only in spirit, and in the hearts of those who adore her. She will always be part of what makes them whole. Her life will impact this family like no one else’s will. This because of all she has given, even though much was taken away from her. Joan says that the family is thankful for “every minute of every day” that they have Montanna present with them. The family takes lots of pictures and they even journal about Montanna’s life. You see, there really is something special about these folks. In regards to their warrior princess and how she views her situation, Joan has this to say, “We see how happy she is every day with what she has. Montanna doesn't question what life has given her, she makes the most of it! She loves going to school, being with friends, going to football games and other school activities. She gets excited when Birthday and Christmas presents are given to her even though she can't see the gift, the wrappings or the people around her. She has taught us what is really important and that is being family. We love her to the moon and back and yes, we do thank God everyday for her in our lives.”
.Joan has expressed to me that for them, their faith is what is carrying them through. As she put it, “It is only by our strong faith in God that we have been able to move past this awful diagnosis.” Her comments and actions, along with Jennifer’s remarks, lead me to think that Joan is the matriarch of this family. I bet that the strength that her and her husband Paul receive is transmitted to the everyone else. They are a family! Concerning the dreams that they had for Montanna, Joan had this to say, “we had to face the reality of the loss of all those dreams and face the stark truth that most of them were not to be. But again our faith helped us to realize that sometimes you have to put the old dreams aside and take a look at the new ones before you.”
Whether here or over there, Montana will be beautiful for all of eternity. My hope and prayer would be that she would fight this Batten disease with everything that she has and that she would be with her family for years to come. I have no doubt that she will do so with the beauty and grace that she now displays. After all, she is a warrior princess of a rare kind. Along with that, we hope and pray for a cure to this and all rare childhood diseases for that matter. Perhaps that is wishful thinking but we can dream and also take action while we do. In the meantime, there will be more Gold Star families along with their heroic children. I will never forget the warriors who have given their lives in the name of freedom. I will also never forget the rare children and young adults who fight or have fought like the warriors that they are. Together, they all have Gold Star status with me. I know that there is heartache along the way. Montanna continues to battle Batten in the way that you would expect her to. With beauty and grace. Thanks for reading her story!
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Highlighting a previous blog that might interest you:
Journey Unexpected - The Rich Family
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