Spotlight: Stories of Resilience (Seth Rotberg)

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A SHARED ODYSSEY
An Interview with Seth Rotberg

Seth Rotberg is a disciplined exerciser and “social” athlete, an avid sports fan, and a businessman in the healthcare nonprofit space. He is also the co-founder and Board President of Our Odyssey, an organization dedicated to connecting young adults in the rare and chronic disease communities. As a young man of 30, who tested positive for HD ten years ago, his mission is to ensure that his peers in the rare disease community develop strong social and emotional supports, through in-person and virtual meet-ups, as well as friendships “off-line.”

On National Rare Disease Day, which, he points out, is the last day of the “rarest” month – February – Seth talked with HD Insights. He shared his journey from watching his mother begin to deteriorate from HD when he was 15, to learning about his own status at 20, and then deciding how that news would influence his outlook and path in life.

This decision began to gel on the day he summoned the courage to tell his dad and sister his test results. Instead of panicking or grieving, his dad said, “Okay,” and proceeded to talk about the research and all the valid reasons for hope. His sister reacted in a similar way, with the net effect of defusing the sense of impending doom Seth was feeling. Since then, Seth has grown to be a rock for hundreds of others with uncertain futures, though he is the first to say, he relies on a support network as well…and a tattoo that reminds him we have choices, every day.

 

HD Insights: Seth, let’s dive right into the story behind the tattoo. What was your life like before your mother got sick and how did you get from there to where you developed these words to live by?

Seth: I was a kid who grew up loving sports, because who doesn’t if you’re from the Boston area?! I played soccer and I played basketball, which was and remains my favorite game to watch. At 15, my pretty normal life changed when my mom was diagnosed with HD. I went to off to college at 18, and midway through, came to grips with the fact that I had to know my own HD status. My life changed again when I decided to get tested at the age of 20 and the results came back positive. I knew from that point on, I would have to live wondering if and when I am going to show symptoms, am I going to have enough time to do the things you are supposed to do in life – have a house, get married, have children, become financially sustainable?

Around that time, I lost two friends my age – Jake, to a housefire the day before my last semester in college, and Meghan, to the juvenile version of HD. Along with the shock and loss I felt, I also became determined to live by my friend Jake’s motto: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever.”

After I graduated from college, it became clear to me that living that this motto meant a number of things, but first and foremost, it meant doing meaningful work that can help others facing challenges.
Also, my dad really inspired me by taking good care of my mom until she passed six years ago. And he’s been great, always staying positive about where things are going with the research.

 

HD Insights: How did that translate into a career track for you?

Seth: It started during college, really, with fundraisers like my own 3-on-3 basketball charity event, Hoops for HD. After college, I joined Americorps City Year, working with freshmen and sophomore high school students on math and English, trying to help them stay on track to graduate. Shortly after that, I worked for a nonprofit that focused on student athletes. I had majored in sports management because I was excited about the concept of how we can use sports to teach life lessons, how we use that platform to encourage people to learn about different aspects of life. So that opportunity was right up my alley.

Later, doing meaningful work also came to mean sharing my story, and helping support others who are facing adversity. I knew I wanted to focus on young adults. What I found is that there was no national organization that helped connect them. That ultimately led me to start Our Odyssey.

 

HD Insights: Would you tell me more about the backdrop to Our Odyssey?

Seth: Well, Our Odyssey was launched in 2019, so it is still in its infancy. By that time, I had spent a few years in the non-profit world and had gotten a master’s in non-profit management from DePaul. At that point, my career focus had really shifted to the healthcare world. It started with my work at a digital health company that had online communities that connected people to one another. So I became familiar with that realm, and it allowed me to dive deeper into the rare disease community and ultimately led me to start Our Odyssey.

It started informally, though. I was working for the digital health company, Inspire, at that time, and I was trying to figure out a way to support young people who are impacted by any rare or chronic condition. I was very involved with HDYO supporting young people impacted by HD, which was awesome. But then I thought, I wonder if other kinds of communities have something like this, and I found out they didn’t. So I did a little homework and asked young adults between the ages of 18 to 35 if they would be interested in connecting with people outside of their specific disease, and the response was overwhelmingly “YES!.” I remember it was Rare Disease week in 2019, and one young adult said, “It’s a great idea – who’s going to do it? Are you going to do it?” So I said sure, I’m going to do it.

So that’s kind of how it started, to provide this social and emotional support to young adults, connect them with one another, and really empower them to not feel that sense of isolation that many of us feel, especially as a young adult who’s trying to fit in with your peers and fit in with society. There is this feeling like I can let my guard down and just be myself again, because these people get what I’m going through, they understand the harder challenges of college or career or family planning or dating.

HD Insights: What is the structure for Our Odyssey and how has COVID-19 impacted the group?

Seth: Prior to COVID, we were hosting in-person meet-ups in different cities such as D.C., Philadelphia and Boston. We were already planning on doing virtual meet-ups prior to COVID-19, since we knew we could increase our accessibility to young adults. Due to the pandemic, we had to shift to fully virtual, and ended up supporting over 460 participants in about 35 states and some other countries as well. These are young adults with 130 different rare conditions.

A fellow young adult, Anna Laurent, who lives with another rare disease, is my colleague in running Our Odyssey. We make sure one of us is at each of these zoom events. We’ve hosted 36 virtual meetups and seven topic-specific meetups since the COVID lockdowns began.

I think the cool thing is that you can connect with others and just learn from one another, and build up those relationships. If it’s a very rare disease, the closest person to you could be on the other side of the country or even the other side of the world. All this gives people the opportunity to actually connect with other young adults who maybe won’t understand some of the specific details of your health condition, but at least understand the general challenges that we all face when living with a rare disease.

 

HD Insights: Who sponsors Our Odyssey?

Seth: Our main sponsors right now are in the pharmaceutical biotech space. They’re the ones who have really helped us along the way. We hope to have other potential sponsors, perhaps medical centers, hospitals, foundations and individual donors. It’s one step at a time, though. We are still a young organization and want to manage our current set of stakeholders well before we go to the next level.

 

HD Insights: What is your current job and does it relate to your mission to help young adults living with health challenges?

Seth: I’m currently a Patient Leader Recruitment Manager with WEGO Health. This job grew out of a patient advocacy consulting business I started last August. I wanted to help bring the patient voice into medical research early and throughout the drug development cycle. I saw a need for the pharmaceutical companies to build the relationships with participants earlier on and recruit thoughtfully, explaining expectations more thoroughly, and wherever possible, building in some flexibility for the participants’ schedules and lifestyle. I also promoted giving feedback to the participant, something that is often sparce or totally absent!

Having my own consulting company had plusses, but I missed being part of a team. Fortunately, my work in advocacy led me to WEGO Health, which actually connects healthcare companies to patient advocacy leaders for insights, and provides opportunities to get that patient voice heard and established within these companies. With WEGO, my role is to identify these different advocates who can help us with projects and programs we are working on. So, if we’re working on lupus, for example, we find advocates we feel might have a compelling story or might be interested in this opportunity.

We also provide resources and content on our platform to help educate and empower these different advocates to learn more, and to really take that next step in being a patient advocate or patient leader.

One of the things I fight for is compensation for the advocate’s time. I’m a big believer that if you’re on an advisory board of any type as a patient advocate, you deserve to get compensated. These people are usually passionate about their mission, so they are often willing to do the work for free, but they should be seen as key opinion leaders (KOLs), who are taking time out of their worklife to provide valuable insight to organizations studying a therapy or for clinical trial design feedback. A stipend or honorarium is the right thing to do, especially since patients and caregivers need to be seen beyond their condition.

HD Insights: So you work on the social support end, but you also advocate for patients and caregivers. Do you also work on changing national policies through lobbying Congress?

Seth: As you say, our space is social supports, but we partner with YARR, which is Young Adult Representatives of RLDA (Rare Diseases Legislative Advocates– an acronym within an acronym) because they have a big focus on policy and advocacy space. We work together to answer questions about how to empower young adults in these different advocacy realms — policy-related or otherwise — and how they can take their advocacy game to the next level. We are currently partnering with them by co-hosting advocacy meet-ups once a month for young adults to connect and learn from one another. This is a stepping stone, and we are excited to continue growing this partnership.

One of the issues I think really needs to be addressed at the policy level is insurance payment for mental health support. Having a support system of family and friends and having something like Our Odyssey is huge, but it’s not the whole picture. Most everyone living with a rare disease deals with mental health challenges at various points, if not throughout their lives. But access to therapy is expensive. Under under most health plans, coverage is very restrictive in terms of the provider choices, and copays are high. Often, the therapist doesn’t accept certain health plans.

 

HD Insights: We are all acutely aware of the mental health challenges the COVID lockdowns have posed. How have you tried to live your axiom during this time when living fully does not always feel like a daily option?

Seth: You’re right. It’s hard to do when you are isolated. Day to day, during the pandemic, I’ve not been able to do a lot of what I want to do to enjoy life, whether that’s just going out, hanging out with friends, or having a chance to go travel.

Everyone’s going to have their bad days and there are more of them when we are isolated. It’s a matter of what your resources are to get through it. You know, for me, it may be going out on a walk or journaling, working out, or meditation, and really just trying to just accept what it is happening. It’s also a matter of who’s going to be your support? This includes getting professional support through therapy. Some people say there is a stigma with that. I say, if you can get the help, why not try it?

Last year, I was dealing with some bad anxiety, and I decided to just be more open about it, share it with my dad, my sister, my cousin and get their support. I also have some really great friends and a great therapist. Plus I have strong relationships within the HD community – people I can rely on and they can rely on me. So I’m fortunate. I can call on these different resources at different times so I’m not always going to the same person.

HD Insights: How do you plan for or think about your future in terms of dating, marriage and children?

Seth: I hope to find a woman who sees me for who I am, and it’s a challenge. I can’t choose a “best” time to disclose my HD status with a woman I might date, because they can google my name and my story is out there. This makes it hard to establish a relationship based on the two of us as people.

I hope to marry and I’d love to be a dad. While it’s a personal choice I wouldn’t make for anyone else, I don’t want to pass this gene on, so for me it might mean adoption, or IVF with pre-implantation genetic testing, or maybe sperm donation. I joke with my friends that one of them will have to help me out. Better yet, could I get a famous athlete like Tom Brady to help.

 

HD Insights: With the current pace of research, are you, like your dad, optimistic that there will be a cure or other therapy that changes the whole face of HD in the coming decade?

Seth: I am — because I kind of have to be — but I also believe it is justified by the science, the pace of the research. When I was 15, there were probably one or two companies coming out with therapies. Now there are over 20 or 25 companies, with different approaches to symptom management and cures. I hear there are now four patients in the uniQure trial who have been injected. I try to stay up on the research and stay patient. There are a lot of questions that will come up. Hypothetically speaking, do I do the one-and-done gene therapy, do I wait a few years for an oral pill, or do I wait until there’s an IV? Lots of decisions ahead.

The future looks promising for those of us in the HD community, but I would remind people to try to live one day at a time and in the present. By the way, this doesn’t mean you have to do something audacious like bungee jumping — which I highly recommend not doing if you’re scared of heights (been there, done that)!

 

HD Insights: What is the easiest way for people learn more about your story, Seth?

Seth: I’d love readers to visit Our Odyssey. If they want more, they can also check out my TEDxNatick talk, which is a quick lowdown on my life, and get more information about my journey by visiting: www.sethrotberg.com.

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