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Parents as researchers

In response to this article because I get Shiny’s story out when I can in hopes that it will give other parents the oomph to look past what they’re told:

I am the mother of a child with a rare chromosome deletion. Watching her as a baby, I would see her energy run out like a dying flashlight battery, watch her “turn off” and stop playing, watch her go quiet and silent as she waited for her energy to pick back up enough to play again. Then she would, like a flashlight turned off and on again, have another burst of energy, play for 20 minutes, then stop.

I said, “Something is up with this child’s mitochondria.”

She had, at that point, demonstrated a consistent reaction to too much citrate or citric acid in her diet, or when I was breastfeeding, mine. I took to googling now and then phrases connected to her condition. Citric acid. 4q21. That led me to learning about the Kreb cycle (also called the citric acid cycle), which helps the mitochondria do what they do to help the body produce energy from the raw materials it takes in.

This lead me to a seemingly random article on Coenzyme Q10 deficiency. Reading the symptoms, all more severe than those of my tiny daughter, I started to get goosebumps. At that point I think I knew two or three other families whose children were affected by the same mutation in the same area, and I knew their children’s symptoms. Every symptom showed up in some degree in our girls. Where full CoQ10 deficiency would give full on seizures, our little girls might have absence spells where they weren’t quite fully seized but weren’t fully functional either. (We now call them brown-outs.)   Language issues were rife (one of the dominant features of 4q21 deletions at that time was a near universal lack of expressive language). Kidney issues showed up in some of our girls, not as severe as the article described. The lack of energy was pronounced. When I got to the part about the genetics, I said, “I know where that gene is…” and sure enough, it was at 4q21. A recessive mutation would produce a marked deficiency of CoQ10 because a precursor would not be made. Our girls’ symptoms seemed remarkably consistent with a “half strength” issue… our kids had one working gene, which seemed like it should be enough if the disorder was truly recessive, but clearly it was not, and clearly something was missing.

It was when I got to the section marked “Treatment” (there was a section on treatment!) I started shaking and had to wake my husband to tell him to stop me from robbing a health food store. Over the counter CoQ10 resulted in a near complete reversal of symptoms, within a month. I immediately sent a message to the researchers listed in the paper, and had an answer back by morning. “Little to no risk in trying CoQ10,” they said. “Here’s the dosage we use for people with two copies of the mutation.”

“Maybe she only needs half the dose?” I wrote back, “Given that she probably has one healthy gene?”

I received the electronic equivalent of a shrug back, and put her on the full dose that day while arranging for some testing. She was almost two. I knew that kids who didn’t get solid language skills before two often never did, and I felt an urgency because of that.

Three days later, she picked up a new word, for the first time in a year, she didn’t lose an existing word at the same time. (This, a child who had said “Mama” at 5 months old, consistently, for months, one of the only sounds she made, but who had lost that word for months when another word took its place.) New words followed in a tumble. Her articulation was terrible but clearly her brain was finally managing to produce language in a way it had not been.

She’s now on several supplements, all aimed at helping her body use CoQ10 better. Each addition of the right stuff improves an area that has languished. Some things don’t help, we don’t keep those. The true test is that sometimes we discontinue something, and if skills go with it, we know we’re on to something important.

When she grows, we have to increase the dose or her symptoms start creeping back. The dose that makes her symptoms disappear is almost exactly half the dose she would require if she had two mutated genes rather than one functional gene. Our best guess is that there are other genes in the area that work in concert, and that a simple mutation of one gene does not produce the disastrous effects that missing the whole segment does.

More importantly, other children with similar deletions have tried similar treatments and seen similar improvements. We’ll never have a large enough sample size for a gold standard study, but the risks are low for the supplements we use, and the rewards, thus far, for many families, have been life changing.

We have had many doctors pooh pooh the idea, including one who said, “Mitochondrial ailments are very rare. It would be extremely unlikely for her to have two extraordinarily rare conditions. Missing one gene rarely produces effects with things like this.”

I had to laugh. When a family has already been struck by lightening, telling them they’re not likely to be struck again, despite having found a tall metal object in the middle of the living area, isn’t very useful, especially when the burn marks all look exactly the same.

Interestingly, while my husband and I do not share my daughter’s deletion, his mother was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia. Which may have a gene at 4q21. I have no idea what that means for my husband, if anything, or why our family would be struck by such apparently different lightening in such an identical position.

I’m 43 years old and may well be going back to school soon in order to learn molecular genetics, because there is so much I need to learn to even read the papers that might answer my questions. To gain access to testing equipment I can’t persuade a doctor to use to satisfy curiosity. To contact experts who might take a student seriously when they brush off a parent.

In the mean time my child is now almost 11, and despite the fact we were told she would likely never have more than a few words… she has more than 1000 spoken and signed words that she can use, can read (taught herself to read silently, we discovered it by accident). She sings. She makes puns. She has a robust and precocious sense of sarcasm.  She is not “healed”. She is not “cured”. She is who she is, but with every supplement that we find that works, things get a little easier for her, a little less frustrating. We were told that 70% of children died before age 2 with her condition. Then they said 20% by age 5. That there might be a high risk of death before 20. Now? No one is making predictions anymore. We’re in uncharted territory.

The single best resource we’ve had? Each other. Other parents with children with similar deletions. Even some parents who also have deletions in similar areas. We share information. We talk about what works. We talk about who to talk to. We keep each other going when doctors dismiss us or simply don’t even bother to try to understand.

Published in Health Shiny Special Needs Supplements

One Comment

  1. Lili Lili

    I sent you an email about this, to jenrose AT the obvious domain, hope you still use that addy

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