The best Christmas my children ever had was also the worst Christmas my husband and I ever had. Elizabeth, age seven, and her brother, Ian, age five, couldn't imagine why they were getting everything they wanted for Christmas. The reason Santa was so generous was because of something my husband Pat and I knew and the kids couldn't comprehend. Something that we had just learned, and it terrified us.
This was 1994 and the story actually starts a few years earlier. For a couple of years, I had noticed a rash on the sides of Elizabeth's neck that looked like prickly heat. For those same years, my father and brother both died of cancer, and I was probably overanxious about illness. The doctors assured us there was nothing wrong and I shouldn't worry, but I wasn't so sure. And so without a referral, and paying out-of-pocket, I took Elizabeth to a dermatologist. She was probably just allergic to something, but why did it appear just on the sides of her neck, this rash?
So it's two days before Christmas, 1994, and the dermatologist takes a quick look at her neck and says, "She has pseudoxanthoma elasticum." And then he shuts off the lights and looks in her eyes. It turns out, by chance, this dermatologist also trained in ophthalmology. Our lucky day. I am sick to my stomach. "Oma?" Oma's like melanoma, lymphoma—cancer. "Why are you looking in her eyes for a skin rash?" I scream and make no sound.
So there it is. Elizabeth has pseudoxanthoma elasticum, PXE for short. Questions mix with fear and erupt like bile in my throat. Why are you looking in her eyes? What do you know about this? How do you know for sure? What is the prognosis? My training in pastoral counseling did not prepare me for this.
Dr. Bercovitch tells us everything he knows about PXE. It's a rare genetic disorder, it's systemic, it's a slowly progressing, premature aging disease. It causes loose wrinkly skin in the flexor areas. It causes legal blindness, like macular degeneration, and a host of cardiovascular problems. Little is known about this disease, and some people die in their 30s, say some of the reports at the time. He then just glances at our son and says, "He has it, too." We want to flee back to the land of normal.
Two days after Christmas, researchers come from a university in Boston, and they take blood from us and our children for a research project focused on finding the gene. A few days later, researchers come from a medical center in New York and say they want blood, too. "These are children. They're five and seven years old. Don't make them face the needle twice. Go and get your share from the other researchers." They laugh, incredulous. "Share?" It is then that we learn that there is little sharing in biomedical research.
This moment, more than any other, lit a fire beneath my husband Pat and me. Pat and I went to a medical school library and we copied every article we could find on PXE. We didn't understand a thing. We bought medical dictionaries and scientific textbooks and read everything we could get our hands on. And though we still didn't understand, we could see patterns, and it became quickly apparent within a month that there was no systematic effort to understand PXE.
In addition, the lack of sharing that we experienced was pervasive. Researchers competed with each other because the ecosystem was designed to reward competition rather than to alleviate suffering. We realized that we would have to do work on this condition ourselves to find solutions for ourselves and others like us. But we faced two major barriers. The first one: Pat and I have no science background. At the time, he's the manager of a construction company, and I'm a former college chaplain stay-at-home mom—hardly the backgrounds to take the research world by storm. The second barrier: researchers don't share. People told us you can't herd cats. Well, yes you can if you move their food.
DNA and clinical data is the food. So we would collect blood and medical histories, and require that all scientists using these resources would share results with each other and with the people who donated.
Well before the internet was in common use, Pat and I established PXE International, a nonprofit dedicated to initiating research and conducting it on PXE and also supporting individuals with the disease. Using traditional media, we garnered around 100-150 people around the world who we asked, would you give us your blood, your tissue, your medical histories, your medical records? And we brought all of that together.
We quickly learned that this shared resource was not going to be enough. And so we decided we had to do hardcore bench science—hardcore research. So we borrowed bench space at a lab at Harvard. A wonderful neighbor came a couple times a week and sat with the kids from 8p.m. to 2a.m. while Pat and I extracted DNA, ran and scored gels and searched for the gene. Generous postdocs tutored us as we went along. Within a few years, we found the gene. We patented it so that it would be freely available. We created a diagnostic test. We put together a research consortium. We held research meetings and opened a center of excellence. We found more than 4,000 people around the world who had PXE, and held patient meetings and did clinical trials and studies.
Through all this, we lived with fear. Fear of the disease breathing down our neck while the clock ticked. Fear of researchers, so well credentialed and positioned in a world made for them. Fear that we were making the wrong choices. Fear that the naysayers were right and the cats would simply find a new food. But greater than all these fears was our drive to make a difference for our kids and for all those we had met along the way. And very quickly, we also realized what we were doing for one disease, we should do for all diseases.
We joined with, and I eventually led, Genetic Alliance—a network of health advocacy, patient advocacy, research and health organizations. We built scalable and extensible resources, like biobanks and registries and directories of support for all diseases. And as I learned about all those diseases and all those disease communities, I realized that there were two secrets in health care that were impacting me greatly. The first: there are no ready answers for people like my kids or all the people I was working with, whether common or rare conditions. And the second secret: the answers lie in all of us together, donating our data, our biological samples and ultimately ourselves.
There is a small groundswell of individuals who are working to change this. Citizen scientists, activists, hacks who are using crowdsourcing, do-it-yourself science are changing the game. Even President Obama and Vice President Biden are evangelists for the idea that people should be partners in research. This is a founding principle of our organization. Sure, it's really hard to discover and develop interventions and therapies. The science is hard, the regulatory regime is difficult. There are a lot of stakeholders with lots of interests and misaligned incentives like publishing, promotion and tenure. I don't fault scientists for following this path, but I challenge them and us to do this differently. To recognize that people are at the center.
Genetic Alliance has experimented in what it will take to transform these crusty systems. Our goal is to work without boundaries. That sounds abstract, but for us it's quite practical. When we're frustrated that entities won't share data—data that comes from people who gave their energy, their time, their blood and even their tears—we need to stop and ask, "How is it true that we could share, but we aren't?" We're part of this system, too. How do we make it so that people can share ideas freely? So that people can take risks and move closer to one another?
This leads to a dissolving of us versus them, not only for organizations but also for individuals. If I'm going to ask organizations or individuals to strive for these standards, then I, too, need to explore my own being and my practices. If I'm going to ask clinicians and researchers and administrators to take risks, then I, Sharon, need to take risks as well. I need to face my personal fears. My fear of not having enough impact. My fear of not leading well. My fear of not being enough.
Just before they entered their teens, our kids stopped us in our tracks and said, "You have to stop worrying about making a difference, making an impact, and instead, like us, learn to live with disease rather than fight it." I have to ask, where does all my fear come from? The kids' declaration shines a spotlight on that fear. It arises from a bedrock of love. I love Elizabeth and Ian. I love people with PXE. I love people with any disease. I love people. Some of my colleagues have discovered that it is not death we fear, it is the enormity of our loving. This expansive love opens me to great pain as I face loss.
As I discover my fear, I discover that I and all those around me have boundless capacity for love. And I also discover as I move into this fear, that I can learn many new things and find paths to things like practical solutions as well as the core of healing and health.
I don't fear fear the way I used to. In fact, lately, with enormous support from all my fellow journeyers, I notice that it's not a warning the way it used to be. I notice that instead, it's an invitation to go forward because in it lies love and the path to greater love. If I turn with gentle curiosity toward that fear, I find enormous wealth within myself and others and the ability to step into challenges that I never thought I could.
My kids are ahead of me on that path still. At ages 29 and 27, they declare they are happy and healthy despite having manifestations of PXE in their skin and eyes and arteries. And so I invite you, us, we, to turn toward our fear; to embrace the things that scare us and find the love at the center. We'll not only find ourselves there, but we'll also be able to step into the shoes of those we fear and those who fear us. If we breathe into that fear and are vulnerable with the systems and people who challenge us, our power as changemakers grows exponentially. And when we realize that working on our inner life is working on our outer life and outer work is inner work, we get down to what is real and shit gets done. There is no limit to what we can accomplish together.