*please feel free to hum/sing that to the Italian Job theme tune to get in the mood!
Today is Undiagnosed Children’s Day 2020!
This whole week should have launched joyfully with much fanfare and a variety of exciting plans and activities, guaranteed to generate awareness, interest and much needed funds. Unfortunately as we all know, the universe had other plans & so we are all stuck, if not totally inside, then only venturing out for the essentials, scurrying away from our fellow humans & hoping no one gets too close, breathes on us or worse still has the audacity to sneeze or cough in the vicinity.
How I miss the days when a public sneeze generated a polite “Bless you” rather than people backing away in fear and/or rage. It’s definitely not a good time to have hay-fever that’s for sure!
I definitely don’t mean to make light of what’s going on with this awful pandemic causing huge isolation, suffering, financial panic and tragically, the death of far too many, dying much too soon. 😔
There are untold and incomprehensible ramifications of the wider fall out from COVID19. Much of which I suspect won’t even be clear for years to come; perhaps only even when future generations reflect on the past and the repercussions from these times. Splinters and cracks from the epicentre appearing like those on a broken mirror, spiralling out ever further and further.
For now though, it is at times like these, that my SWAN UK family are more important than ever. Who are SWAN UK and why so important you may ask? SWAN stands for Syndrome without a name. It is not a diagnosis but an umbrella term for a child who has a medical, physical and/or cognitive condition that is likely genetic in origin but of unknown cause. SWAN UK is the only dedicated network providing support to families with a child with an undiagnosed condition – A family like mine. https://www.undiagnosed.org.uk/about-us/
For those of you who know me in the “real world” or have followed me and mine via social media https://www.facebook.com/definitelynotthewaltons/ you may already be aware that I have been a parent representative for SWAN UK for the last 5 years. I am (allegedly) a mother of 4 children/young people and 2 of my youngest children are SWANS who like to keep myself and the medical profession on their toes. I have also been a member of the SWAN UK community for approximately 8 years and shared the highs, lows and everything in between.
Due to the nature of the vulnerabilities that our medically complex children present with, my family are currently shielding. Many of you reading this will be too. I know that many of my fellow parent-carers on SWAN are too. Ironically being a SWAN parent probably makes it easier to cope with the current challenges the world is throwing up at us. Many SWAN parent/carers are used to living their lives in uncertainty, in the shadows of those with mainstream, cognitively typical children. Too many SWAN UK carers and the siblings of affected children know that we live by plans that ever change, emergencies, sadly sometimes of the blue lights and sirens variety and far too many know the pain of losing a loved one before their time.
We have become used to feeling isolated, not being able to go out with our children because we don’t have enough support, be that in terms of carers or facilities – ever tried changing a 9 year old on the floor of a disgusting toilet cubicle? Probably not (I hope not) – but this is just one of the many realities for those who care for children with complex needs. So being stuck at home isn’t necessarily new to us.
Whilst every family with a SWAN child will have differing experiences – there is no common denominator of a SWAN child (apart from the fact that looking through the photo gallery of our community, they are all ruddy gorgeous, cheeky, amazing kiddos!) we all know that our children throw us curved balls, medical crises or meltdowns that just cannot be calmed with a soothing word, change of scene or face. We know the fragility of life and we know that we have to adapt and roll with the punches because we can’t change things – or change the world expediently for our children.
But we also know the vibrance of a life well-lived, of seemingly simple but oh so important triumphs – first steps tottered at 5, 6 or even later; first words painstakingly achieved by hour and hours of speech and language appointments and therapies practiced over and over again. Of new skills that come later in life, sometimes only fleetingly appearing and then regressing again, depending on the nature of our children’s difficulties.
Now more than ever SWAN UK needs any support you can offer, no matter how big or small. Although some of the activities we had planned to celebrate Undiagnosed Children’s Day 2020 have had to be curtailed, it hasn’t stopped our community spirit or our passion for highlighting the importance of belonging in a group of like-minded people who can be there for each other through out the day and night.
Never has social media played such an important part of our lives – a network on which we can connect, celebrate and commiserate. Our private Facebook group is a source of comfort and a wealth of advice and experience until we can meet again in the outside world. Please help SWAN UK continue to be there by sharing this post, others like it from the social media platforms and give what you can: https://www.undiagnosed.org.uk/donate/
If I had a penny for every time my children have confounded the medical profession, I would as the saying goes, be a very rich lady. I won’t dwell on the fact that if I had a penny for every time they have confounded me, I’d also be very rich…and probably less wrinkled, less dependant on caffeine (IV drip anyone?) Chocolate and wine but that’s another story.
However, let me elaborate why my precocious precious cherubs have elicited such responses as “we have never seen that before” or “that’s very unusual/odd/strange” and my personal favourite: “that just doesn’t happen!” – when confronted by my child doing exactly what doesn’t happen right in front of their eyes.
You see my children, well 2 of them at least, are considered “rare.” On the whole I try to see that as a positive, albeit at times I think the whole world should appreciate their uniqueness by observing them inside a perspex case in a museum but usually those days are few and far between 😉
Rare Disease Day is once again looming large upon us – 29th February 2020 to be exact. This year marks the 13th International Rare Disease Day which is held every year on the last day of February.
Given that every 4 years the month of February inveigles an extra day into the calendar month and thus is a little bit quirky in itself, it seems especially fitting to celebrate all things rare in a unique month, highlighting the weird, wonderful and downright peculiar (of the medical world you understand(!) – In fact this year there are reportedly 146 events in over 100 countries to raise awareness on the day itself as well as thousands of other events throughout February. You can learn more https://www.rarediseaseday.org/article/about-rare-disease-day
You may find yourself thinking that you don’t have anything in common with a rare disease or even know anyone affected by such a thing but if you will spare me a little more of your time, I’ll explain why in actuality, this misconception is most likely wrong.
Based on current data it is accepted that 1 in 20 of us will at some point in our lives be diagnosed with a rare disease and the majority of them, being so rare, will have no cure. Some of those rare diseases may be transient, others life changing and in the very worst cases, life limiting.
It is not my intention to scare you or depress you (how am I doing so far?!) Merely to heighten awareness around the fact that rare diseases, well really they aren’t that rare and if you personally aren’t affected by one (or more) you are bound to know, possibly even be related to someone who is living with a disease or condition that falls under the rare moniker.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with my family background, I am a mother of 4 of the human child variety, married to the long-suffering Mr DNTW’s, owner (used in the very loosest of terms) of 2 crazy dogs and 1 cat. We used to have 2 cats but one couldn’t stand the melodrama of life with us and shipped himself out. Funnily enough he was also sort of rare, being of the ginger hue – ginger cats are apparently less common than the typical moggy; perhaps he just couldn’t face the competitive nature of this family in the rare stakes?
In a sense of irony that befits our family largesse, all our children have unique and/or rare genes and in a further twist of fate, we only discovered their ‘foibles’ for want of a better turn of phrase, in reverse age order!
I sometimes feel I have to add that bit in almost apologetically – the fact that we discovered this from youngest backwards I mean. When you exchange the usual pleasantries on meeting new people and the topic invariably comes round to the whats and wherefores of each other’s lives, they already think you are a bit bonkers because you have 4 children (or that you don’t have a TV – so, funny…ha, ha, ha….not!) Add in extra/special needs and they either assume you must have adopted and are therefore saintly or if they are your actual birth children, then you are clearly more than a bit soft in the head . Why would you go on to have 4 when you already have one or more with special needs?! Of course no one has been rude enough to say that to our faces (yet!) But you can feel the silent judgement all the same.
All the same, I will confess it was a bit of a poke in the eye with a sharp stick moment (understatement) when our then 17 year old (20 this year!! How?? Believe me I have asked myself this question a lot – I don’t feel old enough to have a 20 year old, although I definitely look and physically feel it) was diagnosed out of the blue with a congenital heart condition, solely as a result of a medical he had undergone because of his chosen career path.
Not only was this new diagnosis very scary – well to us as parents anyway, he took it with the brevity of teenagers and their immortality concept – I did have a bit of a why us moment? In fact I distinctly recall saying that in spite of us making beautiful, amazing and rather fabulous children, (offspring if you are reading this, don’t bother asking for a pocket money raise!) Mr DNTW’s and I are clearly a car-crash genetically.
Considering there are approximately 7.8 billion people on earth, you have to wonder what the odds are that 2 people who are not related to each other in anyway other than by marriage (we have been asked by sooooooo many medical professionals over the year whether we are cousins/inter-family marriage and such like!) manage to meet, marry and have kids, all of whom likely have extra needs all because of wonky DNA (technical term wonky!) from each parent; whose chromosomes whilst not an issue individually, in combination have resulted in the difficulties our children face. There was a distinct wanting to rage against the unfairness of it all and a feeling of being given the shi**iest end of a really shi**y stick. It didn’t help that he received this news at a time I was also stuck in our local hospital with G-Man, (our 3rd) because of his own medical issues.
After a strong coffee (and probably wine) I gave my head a wobble and we began the medical process to discover more about his condition and the implications of it for his future. As these things go, if you have to have a heart condition, he has escaped relatively lightly. Whilst it is progressive in nature and will need addressing in the future, we already know that there are things that can be done when the need arises and because of our wondrous NHS, he will be reviewed regularly and receive the very best care and attention.
According to an article produced by NHS England in 2016, congenital heart defects are the most common birth defect. Approximately 8 in 1000 children are born each year showing signs of disease and the figure rises still further to a prevalence of 4 per 1000 in adulthood – not quite sure why the discrepancy in figures. Perhaps because associated issues or co-morbidities of the disease are leading to an improved diagnosis ratio?
Moving on. our almost 17 year old (another DNTW’s on the road later this year?? UK watch out!) is diagnosed with high-functioning autism, sensory processing disorder and traits of Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA)
Whilst it is right and proper that autism in his presentation is now more often referred to as autism spectrum CONDITION (previously stated as a disorder and within the medical/scholarly community, it largely remains so) it would be unfair to gloss over the difficulties that this diagnosis brings with it.
Our son is many things: clever, bright, articulate on subjects he is passionate about (of which there are many) intensely focused on specific interests, able to recall events and facts from an astonishingly wide range of areas (and years of family memories, both a blessing and a curse!) and with a sense of humour that borders on cheek but *just* manages to avoid rudeness….most of the time. Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or wish I could gaffer tape his mouth shut; usually depends on the audience.
But over the years, it has been hard to not understand each others perspectives. At times it’s felt as if we were each speaking a foreign language with no hope of translation or commonality. It’s been scary and worrying and frustrating.
Autistic people can find social interactions and communication in general problematic. There are so many surprising ways that we interact with each other so interpreting body language, tone of voice, facial expressions and even the spoken word can lead to a whole host of misunderstandings and anxieties which have knock on effects on self esteem, mental health and well-being.
To witness his struggle to make sense of this world, to comprehend that the things we say are not always literal – only years later can we laugh about our miscommunications: the expression I used to use when in a rush to get out of the house in the mornings for school: “C’mon, get a wriggle on!” shouted in exasperation and then looks of disbelief at the child appearing to body-pop across the kitchen, which resulted in more shouting (not my finest hour). Or the look of horror on his face when I would say things like “Keep your eyes peeled” if I was looking for a car-parking space.
Sensory difficulties in so many aspects of life too have taken their toll. Going out to eat at a restaurant, going shopping, holidays, day trips and even visits to family and friends require meticulous planning and contingencies.
The intensity of the world around you when you are over stimulated by your senses – hypersensitivity – and your ability to regulate them must be extremely stressful for many autistic people and especially those with sensory processing difficulties.
There is an excellent video courtesy of the National Autistic Society which demonstrates this very well: (be warned before viewing, this could be triggering for some people) https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=12&v=Lr4_dOorquQ&feature=emb_logo which my son tells me is very representative of how he feels when out in public. I know the first time I watched this I felt thoroughly over-whelmed and exhausted, craving peace and solitude by the end. School teachers I imagine this is a but a snap-shot of your day – kudos to you all.
Paradoxically people with sensory processing difficulties also experience significant hyposensitivity – under stimulation in certain senses, particularly tactile (touch) vestibularly (part of the brain/inner ear concerned with balance and eye movement) as well as proprioception – awareness of one’s own body in space around you. These intertwined sensory needs can result in a craving for input in order for the person to self-regulate.
These are all issues we have learned about and try to continually learn from in the best ways to support our son but it’s not an exact science.
So is autism a rare condition or one that’s being bandied about like a box chocolates? Hmnnnn, that’s difficult to answer. Certainly I have heard time and again that “autism didn’t exist in my day” more times than I care to recall. There’s a great meme, something along the lines of:
There was no autism diagnosed before 1830……
Mount Everest wasn’t ‘discovered’ until 1856 but I suspect it was there all along!
Our son didn’t receive his diagnosis until he was 10 and this isn’t unusual, even though we had first sought help and guidance when he was around 3 years old. Adults are increasingly being diagnosed later in life but diagnosis rates still vary hugely across the UK alone and there is no one specific test that can confirm whether an individual is autistic.
In our wider family, there are a number of children with a confirmed diagnoses of autism and/or co-morbidities thereof. Whilst there may be a genetic component for some, testing may only indicate the presence of a known autism gene rather than whether the individual themselves is autistic. Genetics is advancing and evolving rapidly but there remains a long way to go.
I personally believe the exact cause of autism is irrelevant and understanding, management and appropriate support should always be the best practice approach.
So far, so not particularly rare or unusual you are probably thinking. However, where things get a little more complex is with our youngest 2 children, G-Man 13, and Minx 11. They may be the youngest but are truly determined not to be left out and are the 2 largely responsible for causing the medical community much vexation. For the time being we know that Minx has an as yet, undiagnosed neuromuscular condition, likely genetic in origin and it is likely that G-Man has a variant of this too.
Minx is the more severely affected but both children are tube fed, had severe reflux as babies, both have dysfunctional swallows related to muscle fatigue of repetitive action and there are various commonalities in their difficulties.
Both children are SWANS. This is not a diagnosis. It stands for Syndromes Without a Name and you can learn more here: .https://www.undiagnosed.org.uk SWAN UK is the only designated support group for children and families in the UK without a diagnosis and they have provided my family with a life-line, connecting us with other families in similar situations, even though their children’s needs may be very different to my own. It has given us a sense of belonging, people to talk to at all hours of the day and night, balloons after hospital stays, coffee mornings and family days out. I know from my own experience and talking to others how valuable this is in our rare and undiagnosed community.
In the early weeks after Minx’s birth her difficulties came to ahead at the age of 9 weeks resulting in an emergency hospital admission and a flurry of subsequent appointments. None of them gave answers.
I felt very alone and I pinned all our hopes on every specialist or therapist we encountered. I was convinced for at least the first 3 years of her life that the next appointment or admission would be the one where we got ANSWERS and a PLAN.
I can reel you off a list of conditions: upper limb arthrogryposis, lower limb hyper-mobility, gastrointestinal reflux disorder, gastrointestinal dysmotility, chronic abdominal pain, muscle weakness and fatigue, congenital myopathy, etc etc – but although we have seen specialist consultants in numerous different fields, at many different hospitals and although many differential diagnoses have been proffered, thus far nothing explains why my children require a feeding tube for nourishment, why Minx is a part time wheelchair user, has had to undergo countless operations, tests and procedures over her tender years. Why I can’t explain (to her immense frustration) why she is able to do something one minute but not the next; why she can be running around like her friends and then her legs turn to noodles and she can barely stand, let alone walk; why her hands can hold a pen and write one day but the next it is all she can do to hold her head up; why the things so many of us take for granted are such a battle for her.
I’ve held her in my arms as a baby, screaming as she was prodded and poked, as Doctors trooped in and out, relentless personal questions about whether my husband is my cousin or other close relative, examining this body part and that – hers and mine! X-rays, MRI’s, needles, blood tests, skin biopsies, muscle biopsies.
I’ve handed her over to anaesthetists, surgeons or gastroenterologists more times than I can recall, laughed about her antics and singing (caterwauling?!) over pre-meds (an early indication of what she might be like when intoxicated in later years I suspect) manipulated her joints for intensive physiotherapy, tried different diets and multiple medications. Soothed her, cajoled her, bribed her (she is VERY good at extortion!!) wanted to yell at her for being non-compliant but secretly proud of her feistiness and determination that has got her this far.
G-Man too has had more than his fair share of tests, procedures, trials and tribulations. Both kids have been through more in their young years than many adults do in a life-time.
I’ve paced hospital corridors, driven in a state of recklessness when I should have called an ambulance, ridden in the back of them on blue lights, cried, put a brave face on, been meek when I should have called out poor practice and learnt to fight my children’s corner when necessary.
I will always have respect for those in the medical profession but equally I no longer place them on a pedestal or assume they know best. They know their speciality, they don’t know my child/ren. It sounds a bit cliched and twee but I have learned such a lot over the years and I do consider it a journey of sorts.
These days I don’t often dwell on the fact that we don’t have a diagnosis and I try not to worry about what the future may bring. Other than typical parental worries: will they drive me to distraction by refusing to wear a coat even though it’s minus 2 with a windchill of minus 10 and snowing? HOW SHORT are those SHORTS?! Will she stop stealing my lipsticks, will he ever hang up his towel instead of leaving it on the bedroom floor,; will they do well in their exams (not because it matters to me as such, more that it opens doors for them),will they have a nice group of friends, make only the kind of mistakes they can learn from without devastating consequences?
But sometimes in the small hours, or when something new rears it’s ugly head or when they ask me questions I can’t answer, those worries can’t be so easily silenced. And the truth is we don’t know what the future holds. I can waste time worrying about the ifs and buts and maybe’s but down that path lies only doubt and pain and I wont give it headspace.
Tomorrow is never a given for any of us so we may may as well make the most of today ❣️
This year 28th February 2018 is the worldwide celebration of Rare Disease Day.
The very first ever Rare Disease Day was held in 2008 – a leap year so the perfect occasion for the initial 18 countries that signed up to celebrate.
Every year since, countries across the world have united to raise awareness of all things rare in terms of disease.
Last year 94 countries highlighted their commitment and support to raising rare awareness which is a pretty fantastic achievement. In fact that’s an increase in ‘productivity’ of 422.2222% for want of a better way of describing it!!! (I had to ask my eldest son taking A-level maths to work that out so if the stats are not right, don’t blame me!!) So it isn’t surprising that highlighting all things rare is close to the hearts and minds of those who live with a rare disease or have family members affected by a rare disease.
What does ‘rare’ mean to you? I googled the word rare in the Oxford English Dictionary and the top definition that came up as an adjective was this- “RARE: – of an event, situation, or condition not occurring very often. ‘a rare genetic disorder’,”
After that it went on to talk about rare steaks, uncommon birds and such like. Interesting I thought however that the very first sentence used to define ‘rare’ was in the context of genetic disorders!
Actually I think the use of the word ‘rare’ in the context of rare diseases is a bit of a misnomer. Why? Because at any given point 1 in 17 of us will be affected by a rare disease! Surprised? Think about this number in terms of the day to day and see how it relates to your experiences.
If you used public transport today (probably a bad example since much of the country seems to be under snow!) was it crowded? More than 17 of you on board? Probably. Bought a coffee in one of the many high street chains? Hopefully not 17 of you in the queue at any one time but probably more on the premises tucking into a hot drink or waiting anxiously for their turn.
17 is lucky in some countries, unlucky in Italy. 17 is the number of muscles it takes to form a smile, 17 syllables in a haiku poem. 17 is the least random number in a study conducted by MIT asking people to choose a number between 1 and 20. So again, not that rare.
A rare disease/condition in Europe is classified as affecting 1 in 2000; in the US fewer than 1 in 200,000. 80% of rare diseases are genetic in origin whilst others are as a result of infections (bacterial or viral) allergies, environmental factors, degenerative or known as proliferative eg cancers.
Of those diagnosed with a rare disorder a staggering 75% will be children. In fact, many of these children are a whole new breed of rare. So rare that their medical/physical and or cognitive difficulties don’t actually have a name!
Presently we know that there are approximately 6000 children born each year in the UK alone who have an UNDIAGNOSED condition. Of those, only 50% undergoing genetic testing on the NHS will ever get a diagnosis. And this is something very close to my heart because 2 of my children are undiagnosed.
Whilst we can indeed be enormously thankful that medical science is evolving and improving so rapidly – approximately 5 new rare diseases per week are described in medical literature – organisations like https://www.raredisease.org.uk provide essential support and a voice for those affected by a rare condition.
For those of us still in unknown murky waters, studies such as DDD – Deciphering Developmental Disorder https://www.ddduk.org or the 100,000 genomes project /https://www.genomicsengland.co.uk/the-100000-genomes-project/ offer families like mine the best chance of getting an answer as to why our children experience various difficulties and potentially the best way to manage their conditions, obtain treatment or assistance and potentially connect with families in a similar situation.
Families such as mine with children who are undiagnosed and/or ultra rare can often feel alone. SWAN UK http://www.undiagnosed.org.uk provide the only dedicated support network for families of undiagnosed children and young adults affected by a genetic condition. Hand on heart I can say that the support I have received by being a member (and now a volunteer parent rep) has been a veritable life-line.
Although my youngest 2 children have a myriad of medical terms/symptoms and diagnoses, to date we have no unifying “umbrella” that explains why they are affected. Their medical notes are vast. Between them they have confounded some of the brightest and most well respected specialists across the country. If I had a £ for every time I had heard the words ‘rare’ ‘atypical’ ‘uncommon’, ‘complex (the list could go on for a while, you get my gist) I would be a very rich woman.
If a part of the human body or a specific organ is supposed to work a particular way, you can pretty much guarantee with my kids that it won’t. If unusual presentations or the extraordinary were olympic sports, my kids would be gold medalists. Several times over.
So over the years, being able to talk to those who understand what we are going through, who have felt left out, different or isolated has been incredibly important and helpful.
If one in 17 of us will be affected by a rare disease in some way, IT COULD BE YOU
” There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. ”
Credit: Secretary of Defence Feb 2002 – Donald Rumsfeld
Why the above quip which I’ve shortened to meet my own needs? Well as a very different Donald (to the tangoed-recently US elected one) said it so well…. I’ll explain further down…. hopefully I’ve peaked your intrigue and you will keep reading!
Friday 28th April 2017 is a day to celebrate for Undiagnosed Children in association with SWAN UK who fall under the umbrella group of the Genetic Alliance.
Not only is this a fabulous day to celebrate all things unknown, rare, unique and downright puzzling, (with our children, not all the wonders of the world!!) it’s a day to raise awareness amongst friends, family, professionals in any area of the medical field and wider still.
Most importantly: our big ambition this year – to raise awareness, provide support and a place to feel at home for all those parents/Carers who are bringing up a child without a medical diagnosis.
To quote directly from SWAN UK:
Our Big Ambition is that all families who have a child affected by a syndrome without a name get the support they need, when they need it. We want it recognised that being ‘undiagnosed’ is not always a temporary stage; the genetic cause of some conditions may never be known. We want every child and young adult with a syndrome without a name to receive high-quality coordinated care and support both in hospital and at home.
Surprisingly and sadly, there are still families out there who aren’t aware of the invaluable work and support that SWAN UK can offer them.
In some cases, SWAN UK has literally thrown out a lifeline to desparately tired, lonely, scared and isolated people who feel they have nowhere else to turn. And of note, SWAN UK is the only support group in the UK dedicated to families raising children without a diagnosis – we can offer 24 hour support (give or take) since whilst all our SWAN children have varying difficulties and concerns, a large majority seem to share the view that sleep is the work of the devil so you can often find a parent on line offering or asking for support or just catching up on info they haven’t had time to digest during the day!
Of course, raising funds to support the emmense work load of SWAN UK is also really important but I’ll get on to that in a bit.
Those of you who have followed my blog for a while will probably be able to quote back many of the statistics I’m about to blurt out; & yes I may have banged on about this one way or another every year for the past few in connection with celebrating Undiagnosed Day (and often times between) but you dear reader, even if you are personally unaffected will likely know a family with an undiagnosed child or will come across one (or more!) in the future.
Just maybe you can be the one to offer someone out there light in the darkness and point them in the right direction to access the crucial support and signposting they need and deserve, particularly in the early days of their journey be that before birth when pre-natal scans pick up on possible genetic issues, those early days post birth when it becomes obvious that something is not quite right with their much longed for, hugely anticipated tiny baby or as in other cases when a seemingly typically developing child begins to fall behind their peers or shows regressive behaviour.
From personal experience I know how tumultuous those feelings can be; how overwhelming. Just like the (approximately) 6000 children born in the U.K. each year, our daughter has a Syndrome Without A Name.
My little Minx (not so little now, a whole 8 years old!) was born almost at term and despite a complicated pregnancy, seemed utterly perfect to us in every way. She passed her paediatric discharge – if awards were given, hers would have been gold (proudly boasting mother) but she really was the cherry on top of our cake.
A little girl after our amazing 3 boys (not one of which we would have changed at all; we were never “trying” for a girl and personally, unless there is a very good genetic reason for sex selection, it’s a step too far for me) but it was so exciting to experience, even from the very first day, the differences of having a bundle of the female persuasion – nappy changing = no peeing in the eye moments as my dear boys got me so many times over the years for a start… although cleaning poop out the girly bits was…. daunting…. I’ll stop there rather than make anyone think too vividly.
Our first few weeks in amongst the haze of feeding, washing, attempting to sleep when the baby slept – (i.e. never) and generally fight our way through the sea of all things pink that friends & family far and wide sent to us (yes I know it’s a stereotype and girls, for that matter boys, can wear any colour but did you really think with Minx being the first great/gran/daughter after 3 boys she wasn’t going to be in dresses and frills and shades of pale pink, lilac and basically looking like an explosion in a pink workshop?!)
However, as a 4th time Mum I had a serious case of “the niggles” even in the very early days of the Minx having been brought home….she cried virtually constantly (but not like a collicy baby, I’d had 2 of those) she started feeding well but would then cough, choke, delatch and occasionally snort milk out of her nose (very different to her greedy brothers who had trouble latching initially but would soon settle into rhythmical suckling until they had refuelled) and she held her head/neck/arms so awkwardly.
I’ll spare you the VERY long story that brought me to this part of our journey as best I can (if you would like to, you can read some of my earlier blog posts and discover more about our journey to date).
Suffice to say mother’s intuition is a powerful thing and over the years we have collected a myriad of teams, specialists, equipment and partial labels to encapture Minx’s difficulties but like that dastardly elusive last piece of the jigsaw puzzle, we don’t have the complete picture. In fact as it stands at the moment we don’t even have the picture on the box – frustrating & like working in the dark.
I can give you some examples of her varying issues:
Upper limb arthrogryposis
Lower limb hypermobility
Blood sugar instability
Possible growth issues
Gastro esophogeal reflux disease
Dysmotility of the entire gut/colon/bowel
Low heart rate when sleeping
Pain (in the gut & bowel
Chronic constipation requiring stoma use to manage
Severe feeding difficulties necessitating gastrostomy feeding tube to give specialised milk during the day & overnight
Muscle weakness and fatigue
Have I forgotten anything? More than likely! We see that many specialists and consultants in 3 different hospitals and use multiple pieces of medical equipment, aides, pharmaceuticals and so on; sometimes it’s hard to keep track!
Minx has a wheelchair, a stair lift and bath lift for when she’s too tired/unable to get in/up/out or mobilise for herself. And who could forget the amazing self-cleaning toilet with padded seat and washer/dryer function, complete with arm rests, feet support and a medical pillow for comfort whilst “performing”. Honestly, it truly is a marvel to behold… and I’m told in Japan, it’s particularly de rigeur to own a similar commode, albeit not usually for medical purposes.
So back to Donald Rumsfeld’s now infamous quote, which yes, I’ll admit I have chopped up a bit to suit my own purposes, there are lots of things we know about the Minx but there are equally lots of things that we know we don’t know. The unknown unknowns if you will.
So many of her issues fit neatly together and others frustratingly don’t. As has been much muttered by her neuromuscular consult (complete with wringing of hands) “but we just don’t SEE this presentation of neurogenic and myopathic symptoms and difficulties”
Except of course you do, because Minx presents with them. So it’s back to the drawing board, tearing up the medical text books and much head scratching – although these days it’s a bit more technical than that and there are some fantastic genetic studies that we have been invited to take part in. Largely, down to information provided by SWAN UK, I knew which ones might help us get some answers and who to approach to see if we could get on to them too. If you want, you can learn more here: https://www.ddduk.org
Minx has been tested over the years for various myasthenia genes, myopathies and so on but the above 2 studies give us our best shot of learning what Minx’s overall condition is.
To some extent, it’s unlikely that having a formal diagnosis will change much in terms of treating Amelia and her difficulties. Unless it’s something that a very specific medication or therapy can improve, then it’s extremely unlikely that what she has is curable – in our life time and maybe even hers. But it does give hope for the future, for gene therapy, for others following our pathway and for siblings to make informed choices in deciding whether they want to know if they are carriers or affected by the particular genetic fault. It offers hope, choices, plans and preparation. Maybe far off for now but gaining ground every day.
It should be noted that our family wouldn’t change a thing about our feisty little Minx (except maybe her stealing my MAC lip gloss & suede boots) Whilst we all wish she didn’t have pain, surgeries, physical weakness and so on, some of those exact difficulties have helped shape the amazing, bright, sparky and self assured young lady she is becoming, not to mention the dab hand she is becoming on using technology to help her in every day life – I-pads, tablets, lap tops and PC’s are increasingly being utilised to assist her at school and in daily life.
Maybe my point about not changing her sounds odd? Most assuredly, I wish she and many of her SWAN UK comrades didn’t have to go through the dark, trying, and in too many cases, tragic outcomes I have witnessed over the years.
There is something fundamentally, inherently wrong about a parent out living their child. It is not the natural order or design of this world and is beyond cruel to far too many of my contemporaries, friends, people I have formed and shared extra special bonds with over the years. Some I have only ever had the pleasure of meeting virtually through our SWAN UK on line community, others at the plethora of events that SWAN UK hold every year to give a glow to our special needs kids, their oft neglected siblings and exhausted but exultant parents who meet for regular coffees or stay and play type events. https://m.facebook.com/SWANchildrenUK/
So what can you personally do you may wander? Well, you could share this blog post on various forms of social media, change your profile picture like I have done to raise awareness of SWAN UK and Undiagnosed Children’s Day – I’m happy for my profile picture to be shared but please check with other people before sharing their stories or pics. Get tweeting far and wide – celebs, politicians, the rich and famous to raise awareness (and maybe even ask them ever so cheekily for some cold hard cash!)
Get Undiagnosed Day trending (I’ll pretend I vaguely understand all these terms in connection with social media) because I know that one is important on twitter but I’m not too hot on all things tech. To those of you who are, I salute you – help this Luddite out and get sharing far and wide.
As well as raising awareness, WE WANT YOUR MONEY!!
For more info, ways to donate etc go to the SWAN UK page or public face book page. You can donate via text/post/online or even fund raise for us directly!
If you would like to make a one off donation you can also do this via Just Giving or Virgin Money Giving or text SWAN11 plus the amount (up to £10) to 70070
I’ve noticed a theme in many of my blog posts – the titles often spring to mind based around music.
Although I’m not quite sharing the lyrical prose, more precisely the sentiment behind Shakespear’s line: “if music be the food of love, play on!” I think it’s apt that music evokes so many thoughts, memories, emotions (good & bad) nostalgia for the past, excitement for the future (nothing better than THE song of the summer fueling the count down to an epic, sun-drenched, sun tan lotion coconut wafting, possibly cocktail inspiring yearning).
For those of you who are mere whipper snappers, Shiny Happy People was brought to us by R.E.M. (Have a google, promise it’s worth it) Apparently released in 1991 (now I feel REALLY old) the video even now brings back memories & the halcyon days of having learned to drive, gaining the first tastes of freedom as my parents allowed me to stay out at parties providing they knew where it was, if there was a responsible adult there etc) & the realision that I was on the cusp of adulthood, (although A-levels were less fun) In my present frame of mind how over-rated THAT adult bit turned out to be…. but it would be wrong to be all doom & gloom & as a rule of thumb, I think those who know me fairly well would have, up until this recent blip (understatement extraordinaire) have considered me generally an optimistic, enthusiastic, life embracing & vibrant (not necessarily alcohol induced on the last part – stop rolling your eyes at me! 🙄) person.
Since I entered the hospital (spa) i’ve many time been asked about the Lisa of old by staff and inmates. What was I like before I crumbled? What did I do with time & to describe my qualities good and bad.
I think the person I used to be tried her best, be that whipping up cakes, volunteering for various jobs/school activities/charity work, getting Minx’s request for 10 different shades of nail polish on each set of hands/feet PERFECT, trying to interject exactly the right amount of enthusiasm & salient nodding to G-man’s newly created mind craft world number attempt 24598645 and basically, feeding/clothing & generally keeping on top of things as best I could on the home/medications/therapies & ENDLESS meetings and appointments front. Any day we made it through with minimal maiming/moaning and a modicum of decorum, applied equally to kids, spouse or the fur babies was a day to be if not exactly celebrated, vaunted as a win won.
Most of all, I’d like to think I was a friend to many. One that could be confided in, counted upon; secret keeper, confidant, being around through the highs & the lows – proffering the cake & prosecco as needed.
I hope I have been a decent enough mother/wife/daughter/sister/auntie etc & been there for those in need be that family or friend.
I attended workshops, coffee mornings, presentations & felt confidant enough in a subject that I was passionate about to make my voice be heard and counted.
But that Lisa isn’t me, at least not now & doesn’t feel like it ever will be again. (Don’t you just love a pessimist?! 😳)
Group workshops and therapy have tried to convince me she’s still somewhere there, buried under some rubble, a bit dusty, rumpled & crumpled but nothing that a quick febreeze and a dollop of self belief won’t sort out; however at this very moment, the disconnected, discombobulated partial person I am seems far removed from the one of old.
So that leads me on to my next party piece favourite, with a slight play on words; “if you’re happy and you know it…. take your meds.” Meds are my friend right now. I *may* have alluded to this once or twice (ahem) in the last 2 blog posts and I am quite certain there will be many readers out there shuddering at my cavalier attitude to essentially keeping the pharmaceutical industry in filthy lucre. But a valuable lesson I have learned in these darker days is that whatever gets you through is whatever you must do.
The Doctors and nursing staff keep a careful and watchful eye on what you take as stated by the consultant and what is written up for PRN (as needed) and if you start getting a bit trigger happy on the prn front, they are not going to dish them out like smarties and are very keen that you try distraction therapies, chatting things over with your designated care-coordinator or even something as simple as a hot drink, walk in the gardens before willingly handing over the gooood drugs.
It is fair to say they leave you a little floaty, present but not quite there, comprehending of your surroundings & those of your fellow inmates but all the edges are softened, flattened & much less likely to leave me blubbering pathetically and hoping I’ve rammed enough tissues in my pockets before having to resort to wiping my nose surreptitiously on my sleeve (eewww).
Today has necessitated plenty of tissues, prn & if I could pull it off pop star sun glasses worn at ALL times inside and out plus multiple avoidance, floor gazing & a pretense I’ve gone slightly deaf.
Unbelievably, my 28 day (spa) hospital stay is coming to an end this Wednesday and despite feeling far from ready, able or even slightly like I can cope, the health insurance have not agreed to continue paying for care.
Apparently after 28 days, I’ve had my lot & should be back to my usual, sparkly self. (Must make a note of that, can be my new daily personal mantra)
My consultant did her level best to persuade them I am far from ready, she argued for day patient therapy & that was met with a resounding no. They even tried to secure me on-going therapy as an out patient since this should be covered under a separate claim area but apparently “the computer says no.”
Since costs in a facility like this are in excess of £3000 per week, we are not in a position to stump up the moola for a continuing stay.
Apparently the kids still need all their vital organs & my liver/kidneys will be more likely preserved in a prosecco/formalyhyde combo – pre admission obvs… haven’t touched a drop in here & even for the few days prior to admission – in fact still not entirely convinced that my significant jitter/tremor commented on during early sessions wasn’t down to prosecco withdrawal symptoms…. NB – entirely joking; despite my reputation as the lush of FB, I’m generally a one glass a night type girl and for clarification purposes, I mean a small, glass not one that can fit an entire bottle!! So purely on a practical front I can’t ebay anything off…
So what now? Well the consultant has asked for the crisis team from the NHS local team to review me urgently tomorrow & try & find me a bed in the local NHS hospital.
The thought of having to go through this all again with new staff, therapists, teams etc is exhausting beyond belief & I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified. But my bigger fear is that there won’t be local bed space & I will be shipped off to Scarborough or such like; being this is more than an hour away from the family home & the logistics of trying to retain & build up some kind of relationship with my kids, puppy, not to mention hubby, this is untenable as an option to me. So I will be left with the only option to return to the family home.
Do I feel ready? Hell no. Do I feel I can “cope?” Not even slightly. Do I still have as my end game the “plan” that put me in here in the first place as my intention? Without a shadow of a doubt. So back to the selfish, weak, feeble, ridiculousness & all the other things I loath about myself it is then…
Meanwhile tonight I will cuddle G/man’s teddy that he gave me for support that bit harder & hope the combo of anti anxiety/depression & sleep meds I took will kick in asap….
Yesterday was D-Day – The Day I spoke at the Rare Diseases UK AGM in front of various learned bods and alliances of support groups etc.
I have had so many wonderful messages, e-mails and texts asking how it went and am truly overwhelmed by the support; it means a lot. Since everyone was still awake by the end of my speech and no one threw anything at me (mind you as my dear Father pointed out, have you seen the price of fruit these days?!) I am counting this one as a win.
Yes, it was nerve wracking and I had sweaty palms (bet you are glad I shared that aren’t you?!) but the main feeling I came away with was empowerment. So often as a parent we are at the whim of the medical teams and therapists; so often we wait passively for tests, results, follow up consultations and such like that the lack of having control, feeling disempowered, becomes our norm. More disconcertingly, you don’t even realise that’s what you have become used to, until something – in my case the opportunity to take part in the discussions at the AGM – makes you feel alive again. I can only describe it as akin to feeling numb to everything most of the time – maybe because we parents have so much invested in our children and the lack of diagnosis over time saps your energy; we become a faded, more jaded and insipid part of ourselves? I can’t say.
What I do know is that having people listen to our experiences as a family, acknowledge the battles we fight and most importantly recognising that things need to change for all families and patients involved with complex care needs was so very important. Not just for me but for the wider community as a whole.
It was most interesting to hear from Larissa Kerecuk, the Rare Disease lead from Birmingham Children’s Hospital and the plans that have been put in place to improve services, including a whole new building block being dedicated to paediatrics department specialising in rare diseases. Inspiring and definitely the way forward! Whilst I certainly wouldn’t wish a rare disease on any one, particularly a child, patients and families utilising their facilities when the project eventually comes to fruition can be assured that they will be treated in a fantastic facility, thought through in minute detail and concern. This can only be a good thing and I will follow their plans with great interest.
To listen to Jo Goode’s experience of having a very rare condition (dermatomyositis) and the battles she has faced (and still faces) over the years to get her diagnosis, even now to access appropriate treatments was both insightful and familiar in spite of the differences in her needs and those of our daughter. In fact, there was much nodding of heads all round the room from those who have obviously fought similar battles and could relate in ways that only a patient or carer can.
Although I thought when I first stepped up to the podium that I might regurgitate my spinach and egg muffin over the first few rows, I came away uplifted and empowered (& probably not just because I’d had a night in a sumptuous hotel room away from a beeping feed pump and the clamouring of my children, although I am sure that helped!) I really felt that I had contributed something useful and that those involved were striving for the best possible outcome for all affected by rare diseases in one way or another.
Whilst it was lovely to get home and see the family, the irony of returning to my small folk who completely ignore everything I do, say and suggest after such lofty heights of the morning was not lost on me.
So, would I do it again? Hell yes! Watch out SWAN UK and Rare Diseases UK, you may have just created a monster!!
Since I am writing this in the week that David Bowie died 😦 it seems more than a little appropriate that I get to use these iconic words in a blog post (thank you Let’s Dance)… Ironic also that I had already planned the title of this piece before news of Mr Bowie’s untimely passing broke.
Next week I have been invited to speak at the AGM for Rare Diseases in London at The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in the context of being a parent of an undiagnosed children. Gulp.
To say I am more than a bit nervous is like saying that water is a bit wet……I really hope I can do justice to the community of parents/carers and children that compromise the medically/physically/cognitively complex, be they diagnosed or undiagnosed. To get our message across about the lives we lead and the many roles we have. It’s no biggie right? I’ll just imagine all the audience in their undies or something whilst I stand up and spout words of blah wisdom.
Having been invited to speak at the AGM not long before Christmas, I convinced myself I had plenty of time to write something EPIC but with Christmas hols, small people and large people around (not a size reference, honest, we had family staying) over the festive season, time got away from me and there were other more pressing matters to attend to (that wine wouldn’t drink itself you know).
I promised myself once the children had gone back to school I would settle to the task but hadn’t then banked on having “writers block”. I don’t really consider myself a writer per se (sounds far too grandiose) but I knew with an event like this, I couldn’t really just stand up and wing it without something concrete to go on, even if that was only notes.
By the early part of this week, I had got as far as “Good Morning” and then found myself distracted by e-mails, Facebook, adverts, the sun light on the wall, what to wear – you know, anything basically other than committing pen to paper or in this case, key stroke to page.
It occurred to me having been given a fairly open brief and a speech timescale of 10 to 15 minutes that I had absolutely no idea what that looked like on paper. So that gave me another few minutes to play on google in the name of “research” and I discovered that somewhere in the region of 2500 words should cut it. Of course that threw me another dilemma: how fast do I read/speak???
Not being well versed in the art of public speaking but having been involved with theatrics in a previous life (theatrics?? you never would have guessed that would you?!) I know that it’s imperative to speak clearly and relatively s-l-o-w-l-y to get your point across and ensure your audience has understood and is engaged with you. So my usual style of 90miles a minute conversation (I even leave MYSELF out of breath) at times, wouldn’t cut it.
Nonetheless, all the vagueries of word counts, words per minute and such like were not getting me any closer to getting anything worthwhile written down. So then I decided that as I needed to use some family photos to frame my discussion around, that would be a good way of knowing what I wanted to convey and therefore a good place to continue my research.
It hit me as I explored the files on the lap top just how many gazillion or so photos and videos we have taken over the years. Far from helping however, this just distracted me still further. For the most part, it was a lovely stroll down memory lane but punctuated with pinpricks of poignancy. It also highlighted our abundant lack of organisation since photos of kids were mixed in with cats, cars, sunsets and mobile downloads but nothing in the latter years was organised so that I could find anything I actually needed or relevant to the job in hand!
So after several hours on the laptop, I had accomplished nothing more than alternating between whimsical nostalgia, smiles and a few blurry eyed moments (must have been the dust) but not anything worthwhile to bring to the event. Hmmmnn…
I was fairly sure that although the subject matter was essentially down to me, waffling on about the benefits of chocolate being an anti-oxidant (honest, it’s on the internet so it MUST be true!) was not entirely the content that The Rare Diseases Org had in mind when they wondered if I would speak of my experiences.
But back to where to start, how to begin and how to convey such a very important message about dealing with the complexities surrounding family life and to give a snap shot of all us families in a similar situation? The more I thought, the less I knew where to begin. How do you explain the hopes, dreams, worries, fears? How do you bring out the highs, the lows, the triumphs and tribulations and yet not make yourself or your family an object of pity or woe is me?
And then I took a breath and realised I cannot speak for everyone. I cannot pretend that I have the same experiences, difficulties or successes as others. I can however speak as honestly as possible about our day to day lives in the hope that it might give a small snapshot, an insight and an overview and that gave me my voice, my focus for the piece.
I hope that in some small way it might humanise the process, certainly to the medical professionals who while however compassionate they may be, for the sake of their sanity and jobs, can really only think about us as long as we are in their consulting rooms or wards, operating theatres and such like. They cannot contemplate that before we arrive in their domain, we may have organised a plethora of tasks that make a popstars rider look like easy pickings. Other children that we have farmed out to willing family and friends so that we can attend their appointments, PE kits that we have painstakingly washed and ironed for 3 days hence with sticky notes on so they go to school on the correct day because we will be in-patients for a week or so. The lists of who eats what foods on what days and suggested alternatives in the event that child a, b or c throws a wobbly and proclaims they DON’T EAT THAT…EVER… The last minute spray of perfume on a kleenex so that the child having a teary moment because you are leaving AGAIN can be comforted by your smell.
So trying to communicate that angle of my life seemed like a very good place to start and funnily enough once I had begun, the words just flowed. Whether they are “good” enough, powerful enough, emotive enough, I have no idea, but they are honest, they are my day to day and certainly reflect a lot of the experiences that other special needs parents have highlighted to me so they will have to do.
I’m still trying to wade my way through photo’s to add in and also finding some copy right free visual images to jazz it up a bit in the background but my biggest conundrum now is definitely what to wear 😉 (that’s very tongue in cheek for the avoidance of doubt!) What I do know for sure is that I have a pair of kick-ass red shoes that always make me feel fab, no matter what I am doing. So aside from whatever else I end up wearing, let’s put on those red shoes and whilst I definitely don’t think I’ll be dancing or doing a jig, it’s always up there if I get “speaker’s block”….jazz hands anyone?