Every Day Should be Bryant Graeber Day

By Laura Edwards

Yesterday, the Harris Family YMCA, my neighborhood gym, celebrated Bryant Graeber Day when Bryant, the Y’s friendly greeter, welcomed his one millionth guest.

I run 20 to 30 miles a week and log most of my miles outdoors, but when bad weather strikes or the weight machines call my name, I head to the Harris Y. And on many of my visits to one of Charlotte’s busiest gyms, I’m greeted with Bryant’s beaming face. Whether I’ve had a bad day or fought 10 people for a parking spot in the congested lot, Bryant’s optimism can make all my worries melt away.

Bryant, like my sister Taylor, was born with a lysosomal storage disease, a rare, inherited metabolic disorder that results when the lysosome – a specific part of the body’s cells – malfunctions. People with lysosomal storage diseases are usually missing an essential enzyme needed to break down fats, sugars or other substances. Bryant has MPS1, which causes the unwanted buildup of sugar in every organ of his body.

When Bryant was 14, he and nine other teens participated in a clinical trial for enzyme replacement therapy (ERT) at UCLA. The therapy Bryant received got FDA approval four years later. It’s not a cure, but the therapy Bryant continues to get weekly slows the progression of MPS1, improving his quality of life and extending his life.

To Bryant, I’m just one of thousands of Harris YMCA members he’s greeted over the years. Because he has a kind heart and a real love for what he does, he treats me as if I’m his only guest every time I come through those doors. But my husband, John, who worked at the Y for more than a decade, developed a real friendship with Bryant. My mom, Sharon, the fearless leader of Taylor’s Tale, built a friendship with Bryant’s mom, Melissa, like herself a tireless advocate for the rare disease community and treatments like the one Bryant received – treatments the world’s great scientific minds can conjure yet our system as it exists today too rarely allow to come to fruition to help the people who so desperately need them.

Bryant’s life is a miracle, but if we committed to doing more with the science we already have, stories like Bryant’s would become more commonplace. I think every day should be Bryant Graeber Day, and I hope the light he brings to the world each and every day serves as a reminder of why NO disease is too rare to get our very best fight.

Question: Do you work out at Charlotte’s Harris YMCA? If so, have you ever been greeted by Bryant Graeber? How has he changed your life? Let me know in the comments below.

Note: Taylor’s Tale has supported the development of enzyme replacement therapy for infantile Batten disease at the University of Texas Southwestern. Click¬†here¬†and scroll to the end to learn about past grants in 2007-11.

On the Highway

By Laura Edwards

This week, my mom is in San Diego for the Lysosomal Disease Network World Congress (Batten Disease is classified as a lysosomal storage disease). One of the presenters on the program is Sandra Hofmann, MD, PhD, whose infantile NCL project Taylor’s Tale has funded since mid-2007. Very few families attend this particular conference because it is so technical, but this is my mom’s second go-round, even though Taylor was diagnosed less than three years ago. That’s my mom – she won’t accept precedent, and she won’t miss a single opportunity to give kids like Taylor an edge. My mom and I joke that we stick out like sore thumbs at these conferences (I majored in English in college, and my mom majored in music), but we hold our own. We simply have to. We can’t offer anything in the lab, but what we can do is advocate for children with Batten disease – and all children with rare diseases – and understand enough of the research landscape to maximize our ability to support it with our fundraising and awareness efforts.

All of us – children like Taylor and families like mine and our friends and loved ones – are currently stuck in a car traveling down a single highway. We’ve been told what lies at the end of the highway by those who’ve gone before us – that this is a fatal disease and that the best we can do is provide comfort to those who suffer from it – and make as many happy memories – as much for us as for them – as we can. But I have a little bit of my mom in me, and I don’t like that itinerary. I don’t like the idea of a highway without exits and a car that travels at its own speed and doesn’t bother to tell me when it’s going to speed up or slow down.

I can’t have a new car, though – T’s genes are what they are. So the best I can do is keep my eyes open for an exit. I don’t know if there is one exit or if there are many, if they are marked or if we will have to rely more on our instincts. I don’t know if the exit will be created by enzyme replacement therapy, or gene therapy, or stem cell transplantation or something else – or if there will be more than one exit – but I know that something’s out there, and that we’re close, much closer than when I first got shoved into the car by invisible hands that day in the summer of ’06. See, though I may spend each and every day working toward a greater understanding of the science, I’m still a creative, and I don’t deal in black and white. I don’t deal in absolutes, and I like to throw a little color in there whenever I can. It may take a little imagination to help find the exit(s), but maybe that’s my role – I’ll leave the miracle-making to the ones in the lab. I don’t like the route that was chosen for us. And I’m not backing down.