Guest Voice: Finding gratitude while my son fights Sanfilippo type C

A Pennsylvania father shares his family's journey with the rare disease

Michael Dobbyn avatar

by Michael Dobbyn |

Share this article:

Share article via email
A man and a male teen are seen in head and shoulders, with a yellow information stand and a boats behind them. Both wear light T-shirts; the man wears a gray cap that reads

Mike and Connor Dobbyn, standing on a pier. Connor was diagnosed with Sanfilippo syndrome in 2019. (Photo by Michael Dobbyn)

Guest columnist Mike Dobbyn lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, Jenna. A Massachusetts native and proud Duke University alumnus, Dobbyn works in finance, and his personal interests include playing soccer, listening to educational podcasts, and watching mindless reality TV. Dobbyn’s oldest son, Connor, 14, has Sanfilippo syndrome type C.

There’s a powerful common bond shared between Sanfilippo families across the world, regardless of whether we’ve ever met. We share the all-consuming battle our children fight against a common enemy: the life-shortening disease called Sanfilippo syndrome, aka “childhood Alzheimer’s.” We’re left trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces of devastation it unleashes on our families and communities.

It’s not a club any of us planned to join, but as I’ve repeatedly learned (way too often by now), life often seems to rip a lot of plans to shreds. In April 2019, my oldest son, Connor, was diagnosed with Sanfilippo syndrome type C. It’s among the worst imaginable medical diagnoses a child (and his or her family members) can receive. It’s got to be in the Top 10, at least. The disease is ruthless and relentless.

Sanfilippo syndrome is a rare (1 in 70,000), genetically inherited disease that causes progressive, and often rapid, brain damage and cognitive decline. This is accompanied by a gradual or sudden loss of essentially all basic abilities over time: talking, walking, self-feeding, bathing, and toileting. Even breathing. You get the point.

All of this is due to a single missing or broken enzyme in the brain cells that’s needed to remove waste. It’s sort of like a broken vacuum cleaner in a kid’s fast-cluttering bedroom that desperately needs a cleaning, but never gets one. No vacuum cleaner, no waste removal.

This cognitive decline leads to physical deterioration and all sorts of other medical landmines, and the average life expectancy is teens to early adulthood. Yes, it’s really that horrific.

Recommended Reading
Main graphic for column titled

Trying to Live With Sanfilippo but Without Constant Worry

Fighting back with advocacy

A few months after Connor’s diagnosis, my family went public on Facebook with his harrowing Sanfilippo story by launching the Connor Beats Sanfilippo campaign under the fundraising umbrella of the Cure Sanfilippo Foundation. Because of the disease’s rare profile and thus the lack of profit potential for biotech and pharmaceutical firms, awareness and fundraising for clinical trials are essentially left up to parents to step in and lead, just as many, many Sanfilippo parents have done across the world.

Our campaign was later renamed Save Connor following the release of a three-minute film in October 2020, which became a powerful vehicle for our community in helping to raise awareness and money to one day, fingers crossed, fund a successful clinical trial for Sanfilippo type C.

I’m grateful for the privilege of holding Connor’s hand through his heroic life journey. Grateful for the warmth he shares with the whole world thanks to social media’s immense reach. … And grateful for the many examples of courage from otherwise ordinary people showing extraordinary perseverance when faced with life’s most harrowing challenges.

Being part of that campaign and experiencing my own Sanfilippo parent journey over these past few years have been truly life-changing and have redefined my purpose.

On the day of Connor’s diagnosis, my grand vision for what my life was supposed to look like instantly shattered to smithereens. I remain shellshocked and have constant anxiety while orbiting the many questions, emotions, and feelings that will never, ever yield sufficiently comforting answers. My new normal is a perpetual state of fear, waiting for the next shoe to drop.

Gratitude: a surprising ally

What’s surprised me most is that I’ve come to feel a tremendous amount of gratitude for the path I’ve walked as Connor’s dad. Obviously, I’m not grateful for Connor’s illness. I would take the Sanfilippo out of his body and inject it into my own if that were an option, as would just about any parent in my shoes.

But I’m grateful for the privilege of holding Connor’s hand through his heroic life journey. Grateful for the warmth he shares with the whole world thanks to social media’s immense reach. Grateful for the platform this horrific disease has provided to my family, but especially to Connor, to leave our marks on the world and even inspire others to do the same. Grateful for the many people and organizations — restaurants, gyms, schools, Girl Scouts, you name it — who have embraced and carried us in more ways than I can ever adequately communicate. And grateful for the many examples of courage from otherwise ordinary people showing extraordinary perseverance when faced with life’s most harrowing challenges.

I’m still early in making sense of gratitude and anxiety coexisting within me, but what I do know is that my son’s many health challenges have forced me to realize the countless other beauties that I’d previously taken for granted — like comprehending a book’s plot, tying my own shoes, bathing myself, socializing with peers, and just making logical sense of the world. It’s hard to ignore your own good health and fortune when your child’s health slips away, day by day, with no way to stop it.

Gratitude can energize and uplift even in the face of crisis and demoralization. It can’t heal our pain, but it serves as a powerful ally in our Sanfilippo journeys as we face the dark unknown with hope.

To submit your own essay for publication on Sanfilippo News, please email a draft to our director of community content at [email protected] with the following included in the subject line: “Guest Voice: Sanfilippo News.”  

Note: Sanfilippo News is strictly a news and information website about the syndrome. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Sanfilippo News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Sanfilippo syndrome.