Minnesota at Rare Disease Week on the Hill

Last year when I read Kim Brown’s blog on her experience on the Hill for Rare Disease Week 2016, I told my husband, Trevis, that I wanted to go to Washington DC in 2017 and be an advocate for our precious son, Thomas, who left this earth to become an angel in October of 2015.  After seeing all of the emails from Dean and Teryn Suhr of MLD Foundation and after visiting in person with them and Christine Hoffman when they all made a trip to Minneapolis, I applied for a stipend through EveryLife Foundation and soon I found myself booking flights for DC.  I convinced my husband Trevis to come as well and the next thing we knew we were on our way to DC not really knowing what kind of experience that we would have.

We arrived into DC in the afternoon of Monday, February 27 and met up with Dean and Teryn Suhr and Eric and Christine Hoffman, fellow MLD parents, for the viewing of Rare Disease Documentary Screening of Up For Air at the United States Naval Heritage Center.  The movie was very nicely put together regarding an individual who was living with Cystic Fibrosis, and his journey through the disease.   After a late dinner and lots of travel, we were ready for bed as we knew we had another busy tomorrow learning about all of the policies that we were advocating for in our meetings on the Hill on Wednesday.

Tuesday morning we went to the day-long RDLA Legislative Conference, hoping they would teach us what to say to our Congress men and women on Wednesday.  When we got there we were inundated with a lot of information about current policies affecting the rare disease community.  Specifically they talked about what needed to be included in the Affordable Care Act Replacement Plan to not harm rare disease patients going forward, the Rare Disease Congressional Caucus and its importance, rationale for increased funding related to the National Institute of Health (NIH) and Federal Drug Administration (FDA), and the support of the OPEN ACT.  By the end of the day we felt prepared for our meetings with our Congress men and women on Wednesday.  In the afternoon we were able to go to a breakout session where they taught us how to tell our story which included our plug for why we needed their support within 90 seconds.  We also got to meet other constituents from the State of Minnesota as we would spend most of the day with them on Wednesday telling our story and making our asks of our state Legislatures.

That evening and during the day we were able to meet other MLD families as there were 14 of us representing MLD this year.  It was pretty amazing and let me say our MLD families are awesome, I might be a little biased!  We learned a lot on Tuesday and we were ready for the Hill on Wednesday.

Wednesday, March 1 we got up bright and early for breakfast before they sent us off to the Hill.  We met up with our MN team right after breakfast and headed to our first meeting.  We all had our 90 second elevator speech ready for our meetings with our specific “asks”.  Brett Robertson, a MLD dad, was in our group from MN, but even though we had similar stories our “asks” were very different, which made our meetings even more impactful.  Everyone in our group had their opportunity to present their story and articulate their “ask” to the congressional staffer and/or the Representative or Senator.  We were most interested in obtaining funding for the NIH and FDA, so that we can continue to search for cures for this awful disease.  At every meeting that we had, we left a letter that told Thomas’ Story in more detail along with our specific asks, which of course had pictures of our sweet boy.

As we moved from meeting to meeting we were lucky to get our own tour of the House side of the Capital with former Congressmen Brian Baird from the state of Washington.  Brian is a Board Member of the Pulmonary Fibrosis Advocates as his father passed away from this disease and Paul Fogelberg, who is from MN, the founder of Pulmonary Fibrosis Advocates was also in our group. Paul and Brian have been on the Hill many, many times advocating for rare diseases, which made our meetings even better as they both were able to add pertinent color to emphasize to the Staffer or the Congressmen important issues worthy of their consideration as it relates to the rare disease community.  Our team was a well-oiled machine by the time we went to our last meeting.

Before we headed back to our hotel room, we attended the Rare Artist Reception where we were able to view spectacular art created by artists with Rare Diseases.  We were amazed at the talent that we have in the rare disease community.  Each piece had a unique story, which made it even more amazing.

Overall Rare Disease Week on the Hill was incredible and truly life changing.  It was a very emotional couple of days, but knowing that we were advocating for not only our MLD families, but also the Rare Disease Community as a whole gave us a sense of accomplishment and us asking ourselves what more we can do for the rare disease community.  Thomas is no longer with us, so we now have to continue his legacy and to be his voice for all of the other kiddos and families in the United States that are fighting rare diseases.  We need to continue to fight for cures!  I would encourage all of the MLD families to start planning now to make it to Rare Disease Week on the Hill in 2018.  It was an amazing experience!

Laura & Trevis Alberts

Our first Rare Disease Week in DC


At the 2016 MLD Family Conference a conversation with Dean led to a decision to attend the Rare Disease week.
It was a first visit for wife Nancy and I to Rare Disease week and a pleasure for us to assist daughter Michelle in attending this year.

Last year she had planned to attend but her daughter Emily had been admitted to Boston Children’s Hospital so Kim Brown had to pave the way and the great job she did encouraged us . Having visited DC all the way back to 1968 and many times since, I can conclude that big government is definitely in vogue.
Our first challenge was finding the right hotel and transportation and as always Dean came to the rescue. We stayed in Arlington Hilton Garden Inn based on one caveat, they gave us a reservation that could be cancelled at the last minute, no charge. Michelle was a suspect attendee based on her stroke and cancer recovery status but she was able to recover sufficient to make the trip. We used the metro to transfer from the hotel to meetings and soon were comfortable with travel inside the beltway. My recommendation would be to use Uber (what a great innovation in free and fair trade) to avoid any walking and searching for buildings in the rain.

We attended the RDLA Legislative Conference on Tuesday, which was a series of presentations related to rare disease issues apart from one political speech in support of the ACA which is an oxymoron. Most of the presentation related to current issues of interest to the advocacy community. The room was packed with attendees and the presentations were helpful in preparing us for the next day.

We met and heard some people from NC who had significant experience in advocacy and the group that we participated in helped navigate us through the halls of the senate and congress during our representative visits on Wednesday. We were prepared that we would not get to visit face to face with our representatives and that senior staffers were equally important.

I did see a number of senators in the basement as they departed the subway to the capitol building including Elizabeth Warren who smiled at Michelle as she was being pushed by me but had an MA Rare Disease badge on. My disappointment at not seeing any senator or congressman in our office visits was more than countered by the magnificent scene on Tuesday’s TV appearance of Megan Crowley* in POTUS’ message to a joint session of Congress and the first time ever Presidential recognition of Rare Disease Day!

In summary, it was a great experience and one we will repeat again next year, Lord willing. For many years I have lamented my lack of involvement in the MLD lobby. Dean and Teryn have carried the baton alone too long. This year was a manifold increase from Kim Brown’s sole visit last year. I hope that next year we will have an MLD hotel block rate to encourage participation.

Maybe Trump will attend 😊

 

Farewell, Adios, Ciao, Au Revoir, Sayonara and Zàijiàn,

Tony Hodgson for Michelle Hodgson Pierce and Nancy Hodgson

* Megan Crowley, her father John and the rest of her family were featured in the 2010 film, Extraordinary Measures.