In October 2005, Mike and Nory Gomoll celebrated with joy when they adopted a beautiful baby boy named Joey from Guatemala. Joey had large, chocolate eyes, a thick mat of dark hair piled high on his head, and an infectious smile. Joey arrived to join his family when he was six months old, about the same age that his older brother and sister were when they were adopted from Guatemala as well.
Joey quickly adapted to life in the U.S. and loved playing with his older siblings. He loved music, Elmo, and had an early appreciation for songs and rhythm. Things changed, however, when Joey was ten months old.
Joey was visiting his grandparents when he had his first seizure. At first, his grandfather didn’t recognize the unusual, rhythmic movements of his arm and upper body when Joey sat on his lap. When his Aunt walked by and observed the scene, however, she knew that something was amiss. Since Joey’s grandfather lived across the street from Illinois Masonic Hospital, his family members ran the short distance to the hospital for an evaluation. Because of the unusual nature of his first seizure, Joey was admitted to the hospital and he received an extensive evaluation. All of his initial testing was negative and Joey eventually discharged with the diagnosis of a simple febrile seizure.
But it wasn’t so simple. Several weeks later, Joey had another seizure. Because he had a fever at the time of the next seizure, Joe’s again was diagnosed with a febrile seizure. With increasing frequency and unrelenting insidiousness, the seizures continued. Sometimes Joey would just stare into space and have involuntary movements of his wrist, sometimes the seizures were much more ominous. Early on, the seizures were almost always associated with fever. Joey was started on phenobarbital for treatment of recurrent febrile seizures but his parents were told that he would eventually “grow out of it.”
Soon enough, Joey was having seizures with increasing frequency. The recurrent attacks on his growing brain began to show adverse effects on his development. Joey never learned to speak more than a few words, although he loved to interact with others. He learned to communicate with loved ones and family members in other ways.
As Joey continued to have seizures, he tried multiple different medications with little or no improvement. His parents noticed that excitement triggered seizures so they tried to keep Joey as calm with as little stimulation as possible. The Gomoll family fell into a natural rhythm. Mike watched after older and more active Sam and Julia and Nory stayed with Joey to protect him as much as she could from the constant threat of seizures.
Desperate for answers, Mike and Nory took Joey to see a pediatric neurologist at the Pediatric Epilepsy Center at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Joey and his family met with the physician there who, after hearing his story, diagnosed Joey with “classic Dravet syndrome.” This was the first time that Joey and his family had heard of the severe form of intractable epilepsy associated with recurrent febrile seizures, developmental regression, behavioral changes, and prolonged seizures.
Mike states that once Joey received the diagnosis of Dravet syndrome, they “finally understood what was going on.” While the Gomoll family continued to fight Joey’s seizures, they also found ways to revel in the small things.
“When you have a child with Dravet syndrome, life is pretty simple,” Mike remembers. ” Joey knew how to take out DVDs and put in DVDs. He would do that over and over again as he watched Elmo movies. The stuff that other parents would take for granted, you don’t. You revel in every bit of connectedness that exists. You celebrate every moment of joy, every moment that you’re not in the back of the ambulance.”
“A lot of my memories of Joey are of laying with him for hours after his seizures. He would lay on my chest with his hand behind his head and lay quietly. I knew he didn’t feel well, but we were there together, and that meant a lot to me.”
In March 2010, Joey died from complications from epilepsy.
Joey didn’t speak much, but he had several words for dance. He understood rhythm since early childhood and music always seemed to calm him. In Joey’s memory, Mike and the Gomoll family have started Joey’s Song , a nonprofit foundation supporting special needs children and all those suffering from seizures. Joey’s Song has produced four CDs with contributions from famous artists such as Roseanne Cash, the Cowboy Junkies and the Crash Test Dummies. Joey’s Song has an upcoming benefit concert in Madison, Wisconsin on September 19, 2013. Please visit http://www.joeyssong.org to learn more about Joey and Mike Gomoll and the work Mike is doing to fight epilepsy.
And, to continue to raise awareness for all of us, please pass it on.