Boston

As I write this, I am back home in comfortable, quiet Connecticut. But my mind is elsewhere.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Boston, my adopted home for 12 of my 32 years. To say that I was excited to visit the city for an extended period of time is an understatement. I was thrilled.

My years in Boston, from 2004-2016, were the most eventful years of my life. They formed me into who I am today.

Boston was where I went to college, worked for six years, and got my MBA.

It was where I first noticed symptoms of the muscle disease that would take over my life.

It was where I made lifelong friends and lost a dear friend.

It was where I fell many, many times.

It was where I questioned my very existence and the point of this frustrating, maddening hand I was dealt.

Most important, it was where I learned to pick up the pieces of my life and start over again.

Boston is where I grew up.

Continue reading “Boston”

The Next Chapter

When I started business school in 2014, I knew that upon graduation I wanted to work either for a nonprofit organization whose mission is to find a cure for muscular dystrophy or for a pharmaceutical company developing a drug that could one day help my condition. I wasn’t as worried about what function I’d perform, so long as I bought into the organization’s mission and I felt I was making a meaningful contribution. I’ve always believed that it’s better to have the wrong role at the right organization than vice versa.

It took a little longer than I had hoped, but I am happy to announce that, two-and-a-half years after graduating from Boston College with my MBA, I have found the job that I was looking for. The job that made all those nights studying for exams, all those presentations and networking events and job interviews, worth it. On August 1st, I started full-time at the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) as a Market Intelligence Manager.

Continue reading “The Next Chapter”

On Eagle’s Wings

Author’s Note:

This piece was originally written back in 2016. 

_________

“Please don’t ever forget her.”

The quivering voice of Carly’s mother, Irene, echoed loudly in my head.

It was November 2014, and I had just finished giving a speech to my classmates in the Boston College MBA program. The topic of my TED-style talk was my transition from ability to disability over the previous eight years of my life. Classmates were coming up to congratulate me on a job well done, yet I couldn’t shake the fact that, when speaking about my friend Carly and the impact she had on my life, I had forgotten key details of our time together.

Ever since I started business school three months earlier, I had longed for an opportunity to tell my new group of friends about my journey living with Miyoshi Myopathy, a form of muscular dystrophy that had turned my life upside down. I wanted to answer the questions they never asked me, but knew they had. More than anything, I wanted them to know that I was not always disabled, and that I was not ashamed of the person I had become.

In the rehearsals leading up to my talk, I barely mentioned Carly in my story, for fear that I would run over my time allotment. However, in the heat of the moment, in front of an audience of sixty classmates and professors, I realized that I couldn’t tell my story – especially the part about how I was able to turn my life around – without mentioning Carly. To leave her out would be an injustice.

Before I knew it, I was gushing about her bravery and how her cancer battle inspired me to reexamine my attitude toward my own disease. I knew I succeeded in conveying how she made me feel, which at the end of the day is what was important to share. But when it came time to talk about her joyful personality and the many laughs we shared, I blanked on specifics.

I realized that some of the details of our friendship – actual events that took place and conversations we had before she got sick – were starting to fade from my memory. I felt guilty, as if I had abandoned a friend.

Continue reading “On Eagle’s Wings”

Reflections and Resolutions

(Author’s Note: I was originally going to write this post before the new year, but got a little distracted by this bald eagle webcam and college football…it happens.)

I always used to make New Year’s resolutions, but this year, I’m just not feeling it.

It is quite an interesting phenomenon if you think about it. Every January 1st, millions of people around the world pick something in their lives that they vow to improve. We see this one day on the calendar as a clean slate, a source of hope and renewal, just because it is day one.

Every once in a while you hear a success story. For example, I know of someone whose New Year’s resolution was to lose weight, and lo and behold, they lost 50 pounds. For the rest of us, however, more often than not, resolutions end in failure.

I know that has been the case for me. That’s not to say making a resolution is pointless. There is no shame in sticking your neck out there and attempting to improve some facet of your life. In fact, it should be celebrated! I’ve merely come to the conclusion that I’d rather not set myself up for the inevitable failure and disappointment.

This year, instead of making a New Year’s resolution, I decided to take a look back at 2016, reviewing lessons learned while celebrating my many accomplishments that might otherwise fade into obscurity without proper reflection.

2016 was a unique year for me, full of highs and lows I’ve never experienced before. Above all, it was a year of transition. As someone who likes planning and structure, I found myself begrudgingly surrendering to forces outside of my control.

We’ll start with the lows, to get them out of the way. After graduating from business school this past May, I still haven’t found a full-time job. I have been blessed with two great part-time opportunities that have kept me afloat these past few months, but the ultimate goal has proven elusive. It weighs on me every day. Financial insecurity, especially with a disability and with student loans breathing down my neck, keeps me up at night. Thankfully, I planned for this possibility, and I take full responsibility for the situation I am in, so I will rise above it.

Besides, everyone despises job hunting. Repeated, unrelenting rejection is just plain miserable. Through my circumstances, I have come to know rejection quite well, and have learned to harness it into bigger and better opportunities. But even I have my limits. Constantly being rejected for a job, or worse – not even getting back a response – is incredibly frustrating. I just have to keep grinding. I know that the perfect opportunity awaits me out there, and I’m telling you, when I finally do get hired, I will give everything I have to the company lucky enough to hire me.

But I must also confess, I have been picky with my job search. The truth is, I just don’t have the energy anymore to choose “any job”. It has to be the right fit, an opportunity where I can harness my creativity and communication skills, for a company whose mission I believe in wholeheartedly. The role also has to pay well enough to support the additional expenses that my disease will inevitably incur – such as an accessible apartment, personal care attendants, adaptive equipment, etc.

For the time being, I’ve moved home with my parents in West Hartford. I love my parents, and love being able to see them regularly, but we are all in agreement that I am destined to be on my own. I’ve been in the Boston area the last 12 years and love the city to death. It is where I belong. Despite the move, I am fortunate that I have a home to come back to, and the support that I need to stay afloat during this challenging time.

The greatest challenge in 2016? My weakening body. I lost a tremendous amount of strength last year. I finished school just in time, before my disease really started to affect my quality of life. I don’t think I would survive school in my current condition, at least, not without taking some time off to obtain additional resources. It certainly wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be significantly tougher.

For example, at the beginning of 2016, I could get out of a chair without assistance from another person. Now, it’s impossible. Unless I am sitting on a high chair, I need someone to bear hug me to get me into a standing position. At the beginning of the year I was able to go up small steps and inclines with relative ease. Now, it’s a treacherous affair, given how much upper body strength I’ve lost. Declines are just as difficult. Without upper body strength, my crutches become useless if my shoulder gives out.

I’ve also fallen several times this year, and on two occasions, injured my foot. One fall required x-rays; fortunately they came back negative. The pain lingered for weeks, however.

Look, I know what my future holds. As soon as I lock down a job, figure out where I am going to live, and get a few other things squared away, I am going to buy a wheelchair, assuming of course that an injury doesn’t force my hand.

It is time.

I am past the point where I am afraid of what others will think of me in a chair. In fact, I welcome the freedom a chair will provide me. Sure, there is a laundry list of considerations and questions that remain related to how I will adjust to living in a wheelchair, but, as a whole, I know that it will improve my quality of life. I don’t know what it’s like to walk a few blocks care-free anymore. If I can get that freedom back while rolling down the street, so be it.

So yeah, there are a few things on my mind. But you know what? 2016 was also one heck of a year. To recap:

  1. I graduated from Boston College’s MBA program in May. At graduation, not only did the pastor read a quote from one of my blog posts, I also received a standing ovation when I received my diploma, which was completely unexpected (and also flattering). I nearly fainted!
  2. My time at BC allowed me to make many, many close friends with classmates and faculty, friendships which I will cherish the rest of my life.
  3. I went to Texas. I have never been to Texas.
  4. I met my nephew Connor for the first time in August. Although born in October 2015, I was not able to see him until the summer. He is a bundle of joy. I also got to spend a lot of quality time with my niece Sophia.
  5. I finally committed to writing a memoir of my experience with Miyoshi Myopathy. Best of all, I have followed through on this commitment and am making substantial progress. I hope to have a first draft done in early 2017.
  6. I had a piece published on the Boston Globe’s STAT website in February. I was one of the first patients to ever be featured in their “First Opinion” section.
  7. I had the honor of speaking at several exciting events and locations, including:
  • The 2016 Rare Disease Day celebration at the Massachusetts State House (~400 people)
  • The Muscular Dystrophy Association’s “Fill the Boot” camp at Mohegan Sun Casino (~500 people)
  • “Speak Up” storytelling event at Real Art Ways, Hartford (~200 people)
  • The Jain Foundation’s patient conference in Dallas, Texas (~75 people) – here’s the video
  • Boston College “Bounce Back” resilience panel
  • Boston University Medical School genetic counseling class
  • Northeastern University Student Alumni Association club meeting
  • St. Thomas church youth group in West Hartford

Looking back on that list, I must say that I am not good at celebrating my accomplishments. I dismiss them too easily, mainly because I am never satisfied. Maybe that will be my resolution this year – celebrate when things go well! I dwell so much on the negative sometimes, that I forget to also savor my successes. I deserve to give myself a break from time to time.

2016 was, in totality, a very good year. Maddening and frustrating? Yes. But I made significant progress, providing a foundation for success in 2017. Whether I get a day job or live a life as a writer and traveling motivational speaker, I will not stop until I am at a place where I know that all of my struggles have been worth it.

All in all, 2017 is going to be an interesting year. I have no delusions that there will be more turbulence ahead. But I must remember, against all odds – after years of wallowing in self-pity and hating what my life was becoming – I made it this far.

No matter the uncertainty in my future, I must find a way. That is the only resolution that matters.

Rare Disease Day

What a day.

Last Monday – February 29th – was Rare Disease Day around the world. The day exists to raise awareness about rare diseases and the urgent need for increased funding in order to bring about treatments. Just as important, the day celebrates patients like myself who are living with a rare disease, and helps to reinforce how we are part of a much larger community. According to Global Genes, there are approximately 350 million people around the world living with a rare disease, which shows that collectively, we are anything but rare!

I had the honor of speaking at the Massachusetts State House as part of their ceremony to commemorate Rare Disease Day. I was actually supposed to speak at this event last year, but, as I’m sure you all remember so fondly, it was a terrible, terrible winter. I simply could not make it downtown with all the snow on the ground. Fortunately I was invited back this year, and I gladly accepted. Even better, there was no snow to be found.

I had not been to the State House in many years, and had never been in the Great Room – a large, open room on the second floor with high ceilings and natural light shining through the roof. It was 65 and sunny out, so there was plenty of sunshine in the room, which set the mood for the uplifting ceremony.

I was the third of four patients to speak, after opening remarks from the emcee and a state representative. There were over 450 people registered for the event, and almost all of them showed up, as all the seats were full and the back area was standing-room only.

When I got up on stage I was a little nervous, but then I calmed down and started talking. I reminded myself that I had given this talk many times before. I could have used notes but decided not to. For some reason I am more comfortable when I memorize what I am going to say rather than referring to notes as signposts. Every time I watch a speaker look at notes I get distracted, so I try to not be that person, even though it is perfectly ok.

My speech turned out well, although I always feel like I can do better. I am a bit of a perfectionist. Afterwards, I was approached by several people in the audience who enjoyed hearing me speak, and wanted to connect after the event. Perfect speech or not, this why I do it. I enjoy using my story to help inspire others and to open new doors for myself that would not have opened otherwise.

The only downside to the day was that it was exhausting; I just don’t have a lot of energy anymore. I tired out quickly from standing and talking to people, then sitting down for long periods of time, then alternating sitting and standing as the photographer took pictures. I got home afterwards and took a nap, and ended up missing class.

Nonetheless, it was an exhilarating day. In addition to speaking, I also had an article published on STAT, which has been a goal of mine since it launched late last year. STAT is a life sciences website owned and operated by the Boston Globe. I am one of the first patients to be featured on the site, which is quite exciting. Hopefully there will be more opportunities for me to write for them in the future.

I heard from people from all parts of my life who liked and commented on the article, and who wished me well as I spoke at the ceremony. All in all, this was a day and an experience that I will never forget.

Here are some links to the pictures that were taken at the ceremony: 

https://www.massbio.org/events/signature-events/rare-disease-day-43537

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10154569351133448.1073741930.377893583447&type=3

 

Storyteller

One of the greatest benefits of business school, besides the education of course, has been my evolution as a public speaker. When I started the program almost a year and a half ago, I was terrified to stand in front of an audience. I was fearful that my voice would crack out of nervousness or my mind would go completely blank. It also doesn’t help that I can’t stand for long periods of time anymore. My first presentation in school went about as awful as you’d expect – my mind went blank and I had to read word for word off the slide. It was painful to watch.

Thankfully, for both the audience and for myself, things have changed dramatically. I not only have improved my presentation skills, but I also have caught the speaking bug. Although I still get nervous and would rather not present on business topics, I can hold my own in front of my classmates. Part of my improvement has been due to public speaking classes I’ve taken at school. I’ve learned techniques and tips that have been extremely helpful in structuring my presentation and in controlling my body language.

However, the greatest reason for my success has been outside of the classroom. The opportunities I have had to share my patient story is what has truly gotten me over “the hump”. I am at my most confident when I am sharing my story with others, and talking about my journey, specifically what it’s like to go from ability to disability. After all, who isn’t comfortable talking about themselves?

I mean that jokingly of course. The answer is me. I am not naturally someone who likes to be the center of attention, under a spotlight both literally and figuratively. The first time I spoke about my condition in front of an audience, I thought I was going to have a panic attack and throw up on stage. Now though, I can recite my story almost without thinking. What I realized is that my journey these last eight years is so ingrained in my soul that it is part of who I am. There is no memorization required; I just have to tell it like it is.

Over the last three years I have had wonderful opportunities to speak and share my story in front of various audiences. In April 2013 I was invited to the Jain Foundation conference in Washington D.C., where I talked about my experience with the disease and my participation in the clinical outcome study sponsored by the foundation. Thankfully I didn’t throw up on stage, especially since it was videotaped!

A year and a half later, in November 2014, I told my patient story at a fundraiser I helped organize called Strength, Science and Stories of Inspiration. That night was when I realized I was onto something special. There had to have been 200 people in the audience, including friends and my parents. Although nervous, I had control of the room from the start and it was a great success. More importantly, it made me realize that not only was it not that hard to share my story, but that my story was having an impact on people.

That belief was solidified a few weeks later, when I gave an “Eagle Talk” – the BC MBA program’s version of a TED talk. In front of 50-60 classmates and professors, I gave a 25-minute presentation that was extremely well-received. The talk also had the added benefit of finally putting me at ease with my classmates. I had been looking for a way to tell my friends what it was like to walk in my shoes, since this was the first time I had met a new group of people while disabled. Everyone else I knew – family, friends and coworkers – saw me transition from ability to disability. They knew me when I could run and climb stairs, only to see me weaken before their eyes over the next few years. This talk helped to put my life before business school into context for my new group of friends. I wanted them to know I was not always this way, but that I am also not ashamed of who I am.

I not only find it exhilarating to inspire an audience, I also like being able to tell my story on my own terms. When I speak, there is no editor, no filter between what I want to say and what is actually said. It is not written on paper for people to interpret or misinterpret. My story comes right from the source, and the audience can see the emotion and the vulnerability firsthand.

At the same time I believe, and make clear in my talks, that my story is not any more inspirational than the next person’s. I don’t have a monopoly on inspiration. There are countless people who are dealing with far worse hands and who are inspirations to me every day. Instead, I like to think of my speeches as helping to make others aware that any ordinary person has what it takes to overcome adversity and to fight through setbacks. If I can do it, anyone can. That is where I derive my greatest enjoyment, in helping others to realize this fact. I don’t share my story to have someone come away from it saying “Oh he’s so brave!“, as if it takes a great deal of courage to get up in the morning and try to live a semblance of a normal life despite my condition.

But I digress. Since that two-week stretch in November 2014, I have been looking for more opportunities to speak to a wider audience. I’ve given several presentations in class where I’ve been able to put my newfound confidence to work, but I’ve been yearning to go back to what has gotten me to this point – sharing my story and offering advice. It’s been over a year since I’ve given a talk, and I have to say I miss it a lot.

The speaking bug has also been gnawing at me this year as I search for a job. I keep asking myself, what do I really want to accomplish in my career? I realize now that whatever I do, speaking to crowds has to be a part of my life. Maybe I should be a public speaker – I’ve certainly considered it. It seemed inconceivable two years ago, but now it feels like a real possibility.

Over the past few months, in addition to class work and job hunting, I have been working hard to find opportunities to speak, which is why I am happy to say that more talks are in the works!

Without further ado, here is my schedule these next few months:

February 24th – I am so excited about this – I will be speaking to students at Northwest Catholic High School in my hometown of West Hartford, Connecticut. As part of their leadership curriculum, I will be sharing my story, and time permitting, sharing advice and the wisdom that I’ve accumulated over the last eight years. I’ve always wanted to convert my story into a talk where I can motivate and give others practical advice when dealing with adversity, and this is that opportunity!

February 29th – Five days later, I will speak at the Massachusetts State House for Rare Disease Day 2016. I was supposed to speak last year but the weather thwarted those plans. I am determined to be there this year, even if I have to sleep in the State House to do it. (On second thought, I am a bit of a germophobe so that may not be a good idea.)

March 24th – I will be on a panel at Northeastern, talking to students with disabilities about job hunting and the experience of declaring one’s disability in the job hunting process, something I have struggled with personally. I am hopeful and confident that I will be able to ease their concerns and show them that it can be done successfully, even if it is an added nuisance.

April 3rd – The third annual Strength, Science and Stories of Inspiration event will be held, location TBD. Although I will not be speaking this time (besides a short introduction), it is a great event that I hope you all can attend! More details to come once I know more….

May 29th – Still somewhat tentative, but I have been invited to speak at the Jain Foundation’s patient conference in Dallas. I’ve never been to Texas so this should be a fun time! It will be great to meet other patients with my disease. Any time you are dealing with something like a rare disease, it is imperative to meet others who are going through what you are dealing with on a daily basis. There is a level of unspoken understanding that is a huge comfort. The staff at the foundation are also wonderful people who I’ll be happy to see again!

So that’s it for now – I am open to other opportunities as they come about. As I’ve learned, oftentimes these opportunities pop up out of nowhere. It’s going to be a busy next few months, but at least it will be worthwhile. If any of them get videotaped I’ll be sure to share them!

 

History Lesson

This has certainly been an interesting time in my life. The last four months – heck, the last sixteen months – have been a complete blur. That is business school after all. That’s what everyone told me would happen. The last sixteen months have been a whirlwind of classes, exams, social events, and conferences. It has been full of sickness (thankfully not norovirus), weakness, laughter, stress, exhilaration and frustration. I even became a New Yorker for a summer.

Through it all, I have managed to stay afloat, although each semester it seems to get tougher. I remember back in September it was especially harrowing, so much so that I wondered how I would ever make it to winter break. Well, here I am – battered, bloodied, but otherwise unscathed.

When I was home for Thanksgiving I was almost through the madness, but faced another two weeks of final exams, papers and presentations. Thankfully, I still took some time to read for fun. I am a huge history buff, especially the Civil War. My mom brought down a few books I had on the subject that were collecting dust on a bookshelf. They provided a welcome escape.

One book was on the battle of Shiloh, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. It was 350 pages, but I flew through the book in no time. It was fascinating to think that the Union army under Ulysses S. Grant could be caught so off-guard by the Rebels. The situation got so bad on the first day of battle that they were nearly driven into the Tennessee River and forced to surrender.

What Grant did next helped motivate me to think of my challenges in a new light. His army was routed on the first day, but it was not defeated. There is no question he shares a lot of the blame for being unprepared in the first place, but his reaction to his circumstances helped change the face of the battle, and ultimately the war. Instead of retreating across the Tennessee as his subordinates pleaded, he decided to fight back and surprise the enemy the next morning (it’s always an easier decision when you receive overnight reinforcements).

The Federals surprised the Confederates and drove them out of all the land they conquered the day before. By the end of Day 2, they had recovered all their lost camps. The cost? Over 23,000 casualties. The Battle of Shiloh was vicious, but it showed the power of keeping cool when everything is going wrong, and of taking bold risks when the situation dictates prudence.

Now, I would not equate what I am going through to war, not in the least. But it is a struggle. Reading about the battle, I almost felt like I was being pushed relentlessly back by adversity to the brink of failure. I had no choice but to respond. I needed to complete my classes. I needed to network and find a job. Failure is not an option for me. I had to push back, and thankfully I was able to. Now I am on break and can rest for a month, although the struggle is far from over.

That’s not to say the last four months have been all sour grapes. In fact, this period of turmoil has been instrumental in forcing me to think about what I really want to do in life. Not what types of jobs I should be getting with an MBA, but what I really want to do. A lot of the jobs posted I haven’t been able to get my heart into, even though they are great positions. Through my circumstances, I have come to learn and to appreciate that I am on the road less traveled, as Robert Frost would say. I have been given quite a unique hand in life. Thankfully it could be much worse, but my disease is an unrelenting nuisance.

Because this condition is so rare, oftentimes I feel like I am alone. I do my best to explain my situation to others, but I still feel like there is a disconnect that can only be bridged by having someone walk in my shoes, and I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone. The only compass I can rely on is the one inside of me. There is no blueprint for how I should live my life with this disease. Only anecdotes.

Although different, I have come to realize that although my circumstances have their disadvantages, they also have their advantages. My disease has lit a fire in me to make a difference in the world. I could easily see myself, without this disease, living a safe, comfortable life. I probably wouldn’t have even gone to grad school. There is nothing wrong with a safe, comfortable life – that is a blessing to have in this day and age. But there is something hard-wired into me that seeks a different life. It’s like I have this burning desire to do something no one else has done. I guess that makes me an entrepreneur, but I don’t feel like I am one in the traditional sense. At the end of the day I want to spend my time doing something that has a true, tangible impact on people’s lives, using my creativity to tell stories and better the lives of those who are in need of inspiration.

How this will manifest itself in my life I have no idea. Should I be a speaker? A writer? All/none of the above? I don’t know yet. I am letting the process play out while being proactive. I have my first speaking engagement in February. If it works out, it may lead to many more, and I may have my answer. Whatever the answer ultimately is, I will be comfortable with it. Long ago I stopped questioning my purpose in life, as the dots seem to be connecting every time I look back. I just have to be patient, and as I’ve said before, trust the journey will take me someplace worthwhile.

And hey, if the road gets bumpy, it never hurts to be reminded that when you are up against a river, you still have what it takes to fight your way back.