Family faces adversity by taking each day as it comes

Friday, 12 August 2011 11:00

The Grossman family has shown bravery in the face of great adversity. From left are Ezra, Sydny and Jane Grossman.

The Grossman family of Greenwich lives by the motto “Expect the unexpected.” The family, consisting of Ezra and Jane Grossman and daughters Leah and Sydny, has faced untold challenges, from dealing with disease, a house fire, to the consequent stress of litigation and relocation. Life’s certainly not been a cakewalk, but one that has been riddled with unanticipated struggles. However, despite all the odds, they have maintained a positive attitude of adaptation and a sense of humor.

In the 1990s after more than a decade of feeling ill, Ezra Grossman was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). He’d had his suspicions having experiencing a combination of vision loss and impaired mobility. His wife, Jane Grossman, recalls being perplexed by the diagnosis with the autoimmune disease, which affects the central nervous system, not fully reconciling her husband’s seeming good health with his periodic peculiar symptoms.

“It would take about two weeks with appropriate medication for the visual effects to retreat but the attack would leave its calling card with increased weakness in his mobility or additional vision loss,” Mrs. Grossman said. “MS affects each individual differently. It is one of the mysteries of the illness. I realized that our lives would change from then on.”

His diagnosis provided answers and some solutions. Medication helped keep the worst of the illness at bay, and Mr. Grossman continued to work as a consultant in New York City, despite his symptoms becoming increasingly pronounced with the passing years. One characteristic symptom of the disease is trouble balancing, and Mr. Grossman was no stranger to this. However, in 2007, one incident was more severe than all the others, after he took a tumble down an escalator in the Met Life Building, leaving him with a broken collarbone and three cracked ribs. After years of work as a consultant in the city, Mr. Grossman was relegated to bed rest and, consequently, began working from home.

Now, with his increasing physical limitations, Mr. Grossman continues to conduct meetings from home, with his wife there to lend a hand. The Grossman family has accepted the realities of living with MS, and the fact that their life wasn’t necessarily normal, with the illness’s constant interruptions in their routine. Daily activities require far more organization than before, with thoughts about handicap accessibility and coordination with regular doctor’s appointments and medication timing.

“What is normal for us is abnormal for others. Spontaneity is not a part of our lives. Planning and research is the norm. Although these things can be an annoyance, it is our life. We keep moving ahead,” said Mrs. Grossman.

The Grossmans understand that life has changed and that there are a few more responsibilities involved, to say the least. They choose to see the good in all the struggle, and how MS has led to positive realizations in their lives, such as focusing on not taking life so seriously, maintaining a healthy sense of humor, and concentrating on the present and of course, expecting the unexpected.

It was precisely this attitude that helped them through another major crisis in 2006, a fire that destroyed their home, leaving them with much grief about lost treasured possessions and leading them head first into years of litigation stress. But they got through it and began to rebuild their lives once again, keeping a firm eye towards the future.

Yet another unforeseen event came with their youngest daughter Sydny’s diagnosis with celiac disease in 2007. Her condition, intolerance to wheat and gluten, had confounded the Grossmans for more than a decade, as they wondered why she was constantly ill, sometimes so seriously that she had to be taken out of school for long stretches of time. Doctors failed to provide any answers until the diagnosis just four years ago, after extensive rounds of tests and countless numbers of visits to different doctors.

Previously subsisting on a grain and carbohydrate-heavy diet, Sydny was forced to dramatically revamp the way she ate. In addition to no longer being able to digest gluten, she later discovered that she was allergic to dairy, almonds, peanuts and garlic. Mrs. Grossman, the chef of the family, immediately took action, clearing the house of all things containing gluten and putting her entire family on a gluten-free diet. Favorites like pizza and pasta were supplanted with entirely fresh and organic meals, and the family perfected the art of recipe adaptation and food label reading.

Sydny readily admits that her diagnosis changed her life in significant ways, and that eating out at restaurants poses somewhat of a challenge. Ordering from a menu isn’t a simple affair, but requires a series of questions about everything from ingredients to food preparation, not to mention explanations about her dietary limitations. However, Sydny prefers to focus on the more positive aspects of her new way of eating. Her diet largely consists of vegetables, fruits, and predominantly homemade meals, and as a result, she is healthier than ever.

“Having celiac has definitely changed my life, but most definitely for the better. Before I had a horrible diet, mostly because I had such trouble with stomachaches, and getting sick from it all,” Sydny said.

By making the necessary changes, she was able to regain her health and her life. Now 18 years old, she graduated from Greenwich High School in June and will be attending American University in the fall. She’s comforted by the fact that the school’s dining services are exceptionally accommodating, and she is excited to be at a school known as the nation’s most politically active campus of 2011. She plans on becoming active in MS research, and hopes to help coordinate a group to raise funds for the MS walk in Washington, D.C., next year.

This past June, she was honored by the Connecticut chapter of the National MS Society, chosen as one of 10 recipients of a college scholarship sponsored by the Hayley’s Hope and Michaela’s Miracle MS Memorial Fund. The fund was started by the Petit family of Cheshire in July 2007, after the terrible tragedy they experienced in the loss of Jennifer, Hayley, and Michaela Petit during a home invasion. It continues the work of the Petit daughters, who started fund raising upon discovery of their mother Jennifer’s illness.

Today, the fund supports over 6,000 families with members living with MS, in addition to awarding annual college scholarships for incoming freshmen that either have or have family with MS.

Sydny is modest about her award, emphasizing the strangeness of her experiences living with her father’s illness, now such a normal part of her life.

“Receiving the award was really something I couldn’t describe in words,” she said. “It felt like a combination of pride, excitement and uneasiness. I don’t really consider myself to be any sort of academic prodigy, nor to be anyone that should be given such high praise. I’ve had my struggles and, yes, they are a bit different from the average high-schooler’s, but the point is that we all struggle.”

She counts meeting Mr. Petit as another highlight of the experience. The sole survivor of the brutal attack on his family, Mr. Petit continues to be actively involved in MS research and fund-raising efforts, continuing his family’s fierce dedication to the cause through his work both for the Petit Family Foundation and the National MS Society.

“I felt like this man has gone through so much, and to think that he believes that I’ve persevered through any sort of hardship is kind of hard for me to wrap my mind around,” Sydny said. “The fact that he has also helped continue his daughters’ work throughout this travesty he has endured is something I will always be grateful for.”