Friday, April 15, 2016

From sheepish to self-assured in the fight against Huntington’s disease

Occasionally some readers of this blog have told me that, in comparison with their own travails, it seems that I cope well with living at risk for Huntington’s disease.

With two decades of experience in the HD fight, a loving family, and a support system that includes a helpful psychotherapist and other health professionals, I’ve become more self-assured.

However, the hard truth is that I have struggled a lot.

Each act of advocacy, including the articles I post here, represents a challenge.

Driven by fear of the illness, I’ve constantly strived to improve my advocacy.

I’ve also been inspired by the dedication and ingenuity of HD researchers as they’ve advanced towards the first treatments for this complex, incurable disorder. I believe that the hope of effective treatments has boosted the overall morale of the HD community.

Scientists, physicians, drug companies, and advocates all unite forces in this historic quest. Ultimately, HD-affected families hold the key to success. Without our participation in research studies and clinical trials, we won’t defeat HD.

The ‘HD closet’

I first heard about HD when I learned of my mother’s diagnosis, the day after Christmas 1995. I was about to turn 36.

I immediately started educating myself about the disorder, including the fact that, as the child of an affected parent, I had a 50-50 chance of having inherited the defective gene.

I started attending a monthly HD support group. A few years later I became very active in the local chapter of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA).

However, for many years I hid in the “terrible and lonely HD closet,” telling nobody but close relatives and friends about my family’s plight.

I quickly learned to feel comfortable around other HD advocates and support group members, but, when first attending public events, I acted sheepishly.

Thanking my geneticist

Last week, I wrote a thank-you e-mail to Dr. O.W. Jones, who made a very generous donation to my family’s team in the HDSA-San Diego Team Hope Walk, held April 10.

Dr. Jones was the geneticist who delivered fateful news to me in 1999: I carried the HD gene.

In early 2000, he brought the best of news: our daughter-to-be had tested negative for HD in the womb.

Every year I send Dr. Jones, now retired, our family Christmas photo. It’s my way of thanking him again for his assistance, and also a way for us to both recall his sage observation after I received my test results: “a positive test is not a diagnosis of the disease.” I’ve lived with that knowledge for nearly 17 years without developing classic symptoms.

“Hi Ken: Keep it going!” Dr. Jones wrote on our donation page.

Summoning up courage

As I sent my latest note to Dr. Jones, my mind hurtled back the first HDSA-San Diego fundraising gala in October 2001. HDSA presented Dr. Jones with its Distinguished Leadership Award for, as I later wrote in an anonymous article in the chapter newsletter, “his informed and compassionate assistance to the many families faced with the traumatic difficulties of genetic testing for the disease.”

It was my first high-profile HDSA event, with community leaders such as San Diego Chargers President Dean Spanos present. Dr. Jones’s family also attended.

I had never ventured to bring up HD with anybody outside my inner circle, yet I wanted to personally express my appreciation for Dr. Jones. With great trepidation, I approached one of Dr. Jones’s relatives, an adult daughter. In general terms, but with great emotion, I told her how her father had played a very important role for my family.

I had to summon up great courage to say those words. In a very tentative way, I had “come out” about HD.

Small steps are okay!         

Like life, advocacy is a process. Many of my early blog articles reveal how long and difficult the path to greater self-assurance has been.

Indeed, only in late 2012 did I fully exit the HD closet.

It’s still not totally comfortable for me to address HD with people outside my inner circle.

Indeed, who could ever be completely self-assured when facing a disease like Huntington’s?

Ultimately, overcoming the insecurity resulting from the threat of HD starts with joining the cause.

Small steps are okay! With time, they will lead to bigger ones.

The accumulation of small steps by many people is powerful. As I always tell people in online discussions or e-mails, “together we will beat this disease!”

Becoming more assertive

At the first HDSA-San Diego Team Hope Walk in early 2012, my family had a small team and raised very little money.

Since going public later that year, I have grown more assertive.

The exhortation of one leading local advocate at our support group has often guided me: if we don’t tell our stories, why should anybody care about us?

I have shared my family’s story with as many people as possible: relatives, friends, co-workers, high school and college classmates, and new acquaintances.

In the last three walks we have entered, my family’s team has raised more than $30,000 for HDSA, thanks to our generous donors.

In addition to raising funds, we’ve educated scores of people about Huntington’s disease and the need for treatments.

This year’s San Diego Team Hope Walk was especially poignant. After the several hundred participants finished the course, we held a minute of silence for Terry Leach, the brave 18-year-old San Diegan who lost his life-long fight against HD on January 2. Terry's mother Angela took part in the walk.

It’s time to stop the suffering caused by HD, help point the way to cures for other neurological and rare diseases, and make brain health a national priority.

(In the spirit of assertive advocacy, I dedicate this article to the members of the Serbin Family Team and the many donors who supported our participation in the 2016 Team Hope Walk. Thanks to their generosity, we garnered $9,400 for HDSA, making us the top local walk fundraiser for the third time! Scroll down for photo highlights of the walk.)

The Serbin Family Team at the 2016 HDSA-San Diego Team Hope Walk: from left to right, Gary Boggs, Yi Sun, Regina Serbin, Dory Bertics, Isabelle Wisco, Bianca Serbin, Allan Rappoport, and Kenneth P. Serbin (aka Gene Veritas) (photo by Randy Oto). Not pictured: Jayne Millum and Cindy Stempien.

Serbin Family Team members Gary (left), Ken (Gene Veritas), Regina, and Yi with downtown San Diego skyline in background (personal photo)

Advocate Sharon Shaffer, affected by HD, greets former HDSA-San Diego president Bill Johnston, public relations director of the San Diego Chargers and recognized during the event along with daughter Hayley for their leadership in the HD cause (photo by Gene Veritas)

HDSA-San Diego vice president Misty Daniel (left) recognizes Tim Schroeder, one of the top Team Hope Walk fundraisers, for his steadfast, exemplary fight against Huntington's disease (photo by Randy Oto).

Misty and Angela Leach, mother of deceased juvenile HD patient Terry Leach, at the start of the minute of silence for Terry (photo by Randy Oto)

Participants in the 2016 HDSA-San Diego Team Hope Walk (photo by Randy Oto)

Fanny & the Attaboys provided live entertainment (photo by Randy Oto).

Gene Veritas (left) with HDSA-San Diego president Burt Brigida (personal photo)

Paul Negulescu (left), vice president of research at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a sponsor of the Team Hope Walk that conducts HD research, with Gene Veritas, Debbie Negulescu, and Heather Farr of Vertex (photo by Bianca Serbin)

Team Hope medals awarded to all participants in the Team Hope Walk (photo by Randy Oto)

The path to the cure of Huntington's disease (photo by Randy Oto)

Monday, April 04, 2016

Just living life: a focus on what matters most in coping with the risk of Huntington’s disease

As a carrier of the Huntington’s disease gene who’s reached the age of 56 without apparent HD symptoms, I believe that the emotional release associated with this blog – sharing my fears, hopes, and advocacy – has helped me stave off the inevitable onset of the disorder.

Ideally, I’d like to write in this blog weekly.

However, I don’t always have time, as evidenced by my taking nearly a month to post an update.

I regret the delay, because I have a growing list of critical developments in advocacy and research to report on, for example, the results of the 11th Annual HD Therapeutics Conference, held in February.

However, like so many people in this harried world, I juggle multiple demands involving family, career, and community.

Beyond that, those of us in the HD movement (and in other disease communities) have the added responsibility of caregiving, multiple forms of advocacy, and/or living with the disease or its threat.

Ever more conscious of life's brevity and my good fortune in remaining asymptomatic, I’ve been focusing on what matters most.

Being there for the family

One of my deepest fears about HD concerns losing the ability to support my family. Having seen my mother decline terribly because of HD, I long worried that I would become a financial and medical burden for my wife Regina and daughter Bianca, or, worse, that I might not see Bianca graduate from high school.

In my current stable health, I devote time and energy to helping Bianca transition from teenager to young adult.

A few weeks ago, I acquired a third family car so Bianca can drive my “old” Nissan Altima when she gets her license. While we’re fortunate to afford an extra car, it’s no luxury; it will allow her to drive to school, freeing Regina and me each from several hours of driving weekly. We also recognize that having a car is a rite of passage in America, especially in the auto-oriented culture of Southern California.

Once again, HD factored into our family decision-making: seeking to economize and plan prudently, we bought a used 2013 Honda Accord in good enough condition that, as Regina put it, could last me until retirement.

As my trusted mechanic put it, the four-cylinder Accord’s engine is “God’s gift to humanity” because of its reliability. As a teenager, I had always admired the Accord and daydreamed about owning one. Lately, I’ve come to detest driving because of the crazy Southern California traffic – I long for a mass-transit system like those in European cities – but the Accord has brought back some of the enjoyment.

Priority over the blog

I had planned on buying a car only when Bianca received her license later in the year, but a major connection in my HD journey saved me the headache of shopping for one by alerting me to the availability of the low-mileage Accord.

Rob Millum, a friend whom I met while serving on the board of the San Diego Chapter of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA) and also a former member of the HDSA national board, works as a consultant for Affinity Development Group and administers the Costco Auto Program.

Rob’s a natural leader who cares about serving humanity. With his auto dealer’s license he helps people save money on nearly new cars and recreational vehicles. He doesn’t need to work full-time but does so to help support the HD community and other causes.

Rob and I have had deep conversations about HD, this blog, and life in general. When I couldn’t attend the 2011 HDSA convention to receive the HDSA Person of the Year Award, Rob accepted the honor in my name.

And Rob’s a darn good car guy, too!

At 2011 HDSA national convention, HDSA Chairman of the Board Don Barr (left), Rob Millum, and HDSA CEO Louise Vetter as Rob accepts HDSA Person of the Year Award for Kenneth P. Serbin (aka Gene Veritas) (photo by Ashley Miller).

In 2010, Rob helped me purchase my 2011 Altima through Costco’s no-hassle program; his nephew was the salesman. I then parted with my 1999 Corolla, my so-called “DNA car,” which had those highly symbolic letters on the license plate and which had carried me through many miles of HD advocacy (click here to read more).

We had upgraded to the bigger, sturdier Altima for safety reasons. Now it will become Bianca’s car.

Dealing with my credit union’s loan department, figuring out the high-tech gadgetry of the Accord (the owner’s manual is 595 pages long!), and other details of the purchase took priority over this blog.

Other aspects of my HD advocacy have also reduced the time for the blog, for example, raising funds for the 2016 HDSA-San Diego Hope Walk, set for April 10 (click here to donate to our team). Support for HDSA is essential in the quest for treatments.

Just living life

Despite the new financial load of car payments along with our mortgage and other payments, I felt grateful about handling the details of the Accord purchase for my family.

It’s reminded me how quickly our “miracle baby” – who tested negative for HD in the womb in 2000 – is growing up. The toddler I used to push in a stroller at the zoo now practices driving the Altima on the freeway. We’re starting the search for colleges.

I also remind myself to focus on the basics to help avoid HD onset: a healthy diet, good sleep habits, and regular, vigorous exercise. I can get lackadaisical about all three!

Spending more time on the essentials, as well as enjoying life more fully, takes time away from HD advocacy and blogging.

I feel that I need a break from the din of the Internet, the 2016 presidential campaign, the TV commercials, the political crisis in Brazil (the country I research), the e-mails and Facebook postings concerning HD, and all the other things that diminish my peace of mind.

The Easter Vigil Mass I attended on March 26 provided a respite, with two hours of chanting and scriptural readings, a stark contrast with our daily lives outside the sanctuary.

Knowing how many of my symptomatic "HD brothers and sisters" valiantly cope with the disease, I’m thankful for the chance to just live life.