tell it like it is

The pained looks on some of their faces made me sad. I wondered what they were thinking as I shot image after image onto the screen. Some of the still photos seemed to evoke similar responses to the video of Calvin's grand mal seizure from a few years ago. Did any of them have a brother or sister with epilepsy? Did any of them suffer from the disorder themselves?

This spring I was again asked by my friend Hadley to give a talk to her neurobiology class at Bowdoin College. It is a chance for the students, many of them pre-Med, to see a different side of neurobiology, one not seen through a microscope but through a distinct kind of lens—the patient one. I was also asked to give the same talk to my friend David's public health class, also at Bowdoin. I was most grateful for the opportunities.

Getting in front of so many sharp students and telling it like it is feels second nature, reminds me a little of my days of coaching swimming, looking out at the pool of bright faces filled with curiosity, hope and excitement—perhaps even a natural uncertainty—for the future. My hope is that my hour-long show of photographs and anecdotes of life with Calvin can somehow make a difference in how they see the world of health, medicine and disability.

I start by telling them about the white matter that is missing in Calvin's brain. I tell them about his premature birth, his first seven weeks in the hospital, his atrocious vision, his low muscle tone, his poor balance and coordination, his developmental delay, his form of autism, his incontinence, his inability to speak, his need for constant surveillance. Calvin, with all of his difficulties, I say, would be a piece of cake to handle if not for the epilepsy, the drugs and their side effects.

I tell them about the condescending physicians with chips on their shoulders. I tell them about the ones who dole out prescriptions for benzodiazepines like candy and yet don't seem to have a clue about how to wean them nor know the list of heinous side effects withdrawal can cause. I tell them about the neurologists who seem laser-focused on stopping seizures at any cost but seem blind to quality of life. I tell them about the doctors and nurses and technicians who placate me when I ask them to give Calvin their best phlebotomist or intravenous technician. I tell them about the neurologists who reject cannabis as medicine because of their fear and ignorance or perhaps their collusion with big Pharma. Then I tell them about the physicians who have partnered with me, who treat me as their peer, who aren't afraid to help a child even if it might cost them, who are open to new ideas and who aren't afraid to advance the treatment of epilepsy with cannabis.

After Calvin's sixth day in a row of seizures—thankfully only one of them being a grand mal—I began fearing daily ones might become our new normal and that I might have to cancel my presentations. But the spate broke the other night when I gave Calvin a small but concentrated dose of THC tincture made of cannabis flower, organic alcohol and oil. I've given it before, but in my best memory, never to stop a cluster of partial seizures at night. I can't know for sure, but it seemed to work two nights in a row.

Back in the classroom, many of the students were interested in the cannabis aspect of Calvin's story. They wanted to understand drug policy. They wanted to understand how I made the oil and how difficult it was to get a physician to recommend it for my child. One of them commented on how absurd it is that the government still prohibits cannabis use in the face of mounting evidence that, not only does it help, but that it is not as dangerous as other drugs. I began telling her about the reasons behind negative government propaganda from the 1930s and how the bogus racist argument fueling cannabis prohibition has shaped cannabis and law enforcement policy and has lead to the wrongful mass incarceration of African Americans, many of them innocent.

One student who had read a fair amount of my blog wondered why I wrote so much about politics. I told him that Calvin informs my opinions of things and that he has made me realize, more so than I did already, that marginalized communities suffer and face undue discrimination. I explained that if I could help folks understand the hardships disenfranchised people—the disabled, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people and Muslims, for instance—face on a daily basis, I might inspire empathy for them, and perhaps make folks think differently about public policy. I told him that since Calvin is non-verbal, I must be his voice, and that the same can be true of others of us who can advocate on behalf of people whose voices, because of fear and oppression, have been quashed.

In reflecting on my presentations, I realize one thing I left out: my little Calvin has emboldened me to speak more of my mind, to shout if I have to, to challenge authority, to voice frustrations, criticisms, and uncensored opinions. He inspires me to be evermore fearless amidst an oppressive, nonsensical, patriarchal, puritanical, often backwards world. Tell it like it is, he says to me in his singular kind of way. It may pain people to hear it, but how can I refuse?

Calvin, telling it like it is. Photo by Michael Kolster


  1. You are extraordinary parents. I was in the walk-in clinic last Sunday when you arrived with Calvin who was apparently distressed. His dad did such a great job calming him down within seconds of arriving. God bless. Yours in a unique journey and I support your opinions expressed here.

    1. dear anonymous, you are so kind to write. calvin hurt his wrist (we thought he broke it) during a fall when i had my back turned to him for a few minutes. i was only feet away from him but was distracted and did not know he had stood up and as he did he bunched up the rug which he then tripped on and fell. very distressing since we weren't sure exactly what part of his arm he hurt. he is on the mend. thank you for your understanding.

    2. It's gratifying to know that you are able to share your experience, opinions, and challenges with students (and all of us) who might not otherwise understand what it is like for patients and caregivers (parents) to live with this tragic illness. We all grow, hopefully better, for gaining your insights. And maybe we can help the horizon change.

  2. Yes! To sharing your experiences in the classroom, the professors who invited you, and the students who researched your blog and asked questions. To more respect for lived knowledge and the extra work it takes to share it. As always, you inspire.