There’s a saying in medicine: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” In other words, the most common answer is usually the correct one. This is good advice when googling your symptoms as well.
But what do you do when it is a zebra?
The last day of February each year is National Rare Disease Day. (Thus encompassing leap day — a rare date for a rare day.) It’s a day to bring together people with rare diseases.
A disease is considered rare when it affects fewer than 1 in 2,000 people. That can be pretty isolating. It means that you may be the only person anyone’s ever heard of with a condition. It may mean there’s not a doctor in your state or in your town familiar with your disease. It may mean treatments that work for others won’t work for you. (But that doesn’t mean you won’t regularly be offered miracle cures by strangers who know nothing about your disease.)
There are 300 million people worldwide with rare diseases. Alone we are rare. Together we are many.
Patrick is rare. Gastroschisis affects 1 in just under 2,000 babies each year. However, Patrick experienced a complication so rare that I can’t find statistics about it. His bowel died, leaving him with Short Gut Syndrome. Short Gut itself only affects 30 of every million people. Only just about 100 intestine transplants are performed each year. Fewer than that are multivisceral. By the numbers, he’s rare.
I’ve been feeling his uniqueness in other ways this month. Especially at school.
Patrick attends a very unique school, one designed for children with special needs, particularly those with autism. Although Patrick checks all the boxes for an autism and ADHD diagnosis, his diagnosis is not as simple as that. Patrick’s intellectual, memory, and sensory issues come largely from a brain injury he sustained during a cardiac arrest caused by a central line infection when he was a baby. That means that, while many of the things that help autistics help him, there are differences in the help he needs. Also, although he has anxiety, his anxiety isn’t founded in ordinary fears, but in the complex medical trauma that he experienced as a young child.
There is a reason we don’t domesticate zebras. They are in many ways quite like horses. Zebras eat almost the same things as horses. (Almost, but not exactly.) They behave in many of the same ways. But zebras are not the same as horses. And the differences are more than just the stripes.
Zebras are smaller but are very strong. They are not strong in the same ways that horses are; their bodies are not made for riders or for carrying burdens. They don’t run as fast as horses. They have evolved to survive as prey. They are skittish and easily startled, quick and agile, known for a bite and a strong kick. Zebras can be sassy, stubborn, smart, and sensitive.
Zebra keepers know that they need to spend extra time building trust. These animals don’t trust easily. Handlers need to be consistent and gentle. They make sure to feed their zebra personally so that it sees where the food comes from and develops trust. Patient handlers are rewarded with an extremely faithful bond.
But you won’t get there if you treat your zebra like a horse – or even like its closer cousin the donkey.
And this is where my frustration lies this month. I’ve heard teachers say that January and February are when most of the teaching happens in a school year. I don’t know if that’s the reason, but every year in January and February, it seems, we end up talking to teachers about the same thing. Patrick falls behind in these months. And I find myself explaining that he can’t be asked to do the same things as the other students if he’s only offered the same supports they are. His issues with motor skills, memory, spatial reasoning, attention, vision, and math require more.
So we end up talking about IEP accommodations, whether there is sufficient staffing, whether he is too dependent, what is attention seeking or escape, whether staff understands his needs and accommodations, how to help them understand, whether he should have to ask for accommodation so receive them. And all of that leads to the question of whether or not he belongs in the classes he is in. Every few years, this one included, I get a bonus IEP team meeting out of it.
This year is better than some because I know that his teachers actually care and are genuinely trying to find ways to help. At least this year I’m not having to start by trying to convince them that his needs are real. But there is a reason people don’t ride zebras. And there is a reason we are always talking about where we can make compromises.
Next year, Patrick moves into 9th grade. For him, that means moving into high school. And that has opened a whole new set of issues. Demands will be higher. Classes will be harder. It’s getting more and more painful to keep Patrick in grade-level classes without grade-level skills. Because classes are for credit, there are limits to modifications. And he likely will never have the executive skills and memory to handle it alone. The question is if we can find a way to give him enough help to handle it at all. And if doing so is worth it for what he’d get out of it.
So now we are talking about whether or not he should pursue a diploma. Whether he would benefit from some time in a functional skills class. What he will do after high school and what, if any classes, they offer that can help prepare him. And although I’ve known for a long time that Patrick wouldn’t likely get a traditional diploma, or go to college, or have many job options, my heart is having a hard time catching up with my head.
Patrick is a normal teenager in so many ways. He loves his friends. He’s girl crazy. He listens to his music too loud and wastes hours on YouTube. He’s obsessed with cars and can’t wait to own his own. At school with his handful of friends is the one place where I think he truly feels like he belongs and is accepted as himself. His advisory teacher is a keeper in both senses of the word.
Except that, even with a sense of belonging, Patrick doesn’t understand what’s going on a lot of the time and sometimes sits lost and without help for an entire class period. And the question is whether that’s actual belonging. (For Patrick, maybe?)
So here’s to Rare Disease Day, a day dedicated to belonging, even when you are rare.
They say that zebra’s stripes make it harder for a predator to pick an individual out. When many zebras stand together, their uniqueness combined protects the group.
That’s not actually true. Recent research shows the stripes protect against tsetse flies, who are so confused by the pattern that they abandon their attack and fly away. That’s probably more representative of how things work with rare disease zebras. We confuse everyone so much that they flee.
But I like the image of the herd of zebras standing together. So I’m going to stick with it.
Happy Rare Disease Day.