*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 ❣️
There are many days where I feel like waving the white flag of surrender. I give up. Stick a fork in me, I’m done. Substitute your own personal favourite motto for when the 💩💩 just keeps on coming and you really don’t want to face it anymore.
As a rule, I am not a woe is me kind of a gal but there are limits and even for the Queen of “the glass is half empty, therefore there’s always more room for wine” claimant, sometimes I just don’t want to play anymore.
So why today? It’s been a busy week – nothing new there. Multiple appointments – again lather, rinse, repeat. Certain “dark forces” (bear with me, having to be slightly obtuse so it’s not too outing; a story for another day!) have done their level best to floor us as family and put up barriers; as my Dad would say: “same sh*t different day.” Nothing especially jumps out as being out of our ‘norm.’
Actually, the straw that broke the camels back today is really rather ridiculous – especially since I’m a grown (loosely termed since I barely scrape 5ft 3″) woman.
I don’t know about you but for me, it’s often the little things that tip me over the edge and today was no exception: there were NO apricot danishes left in a certain food establishment that prides itself on offering not just any old danish…. and boy did I have my heart set on that danish.*
You could in fact say I had built that particular danish up to be the highlight of my week (I know I know, I need to get out more!) and I was relishing scarfing it down with my mid-morning latte whilst staring daggers at my ever-increasing piles of paperwork that needs to be set light to dealt with and some of it rather urgently (anyone thinking I might be procrastinating by writing a blog post instead of dealing with said paperwork, that’s an affirmative!) particularly if I intend to throw my own kind of shade back at the dark forces. They might be putting up barriers but I’m packing TNT, a demolition ball and an AK47 to pulverize them. Ok perhaps I should STEP AWAY from the caffeine….my over active imagination, key-board-warrior-esque approach and twitchy eye suggest that caffeine, my drug of choice, has been consumed in too vast a quantity.
Whether it was the *slightly* murderous deranged look in my eyes or the muttering sotto voce of curses questioning the parentage of all food halls connected with this particular establishment that caught the attention of the lovely man on the bakery counter, I can’t be sure but clearly sensing something was amiss from the plethora of delicacies in front of me, he tentatively asked if everything was all right.
Resisting the urge to scream out in the style of Ross from Friends a la “My Sandwich” sketch (you young things aren’t likely to be familiar with that gem so let me share it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tqmXTYa3Xw) and without resorting to tears either (the struggle was real people!) I managed to convey my deep disappointment that there were no danishes of the apricot variety to be seen.
And then, as if by divine intervention (ok, I’m waxing faaaaaaarr too literally, all that caffeine has really done for me today!) the dear, dear bakery man, (alas I did not find out your name in the ensuing rush of emotions that came over me!) uttered those most blessed of words: “not to worry, I’m just about to put some out!” Yes! Fist bump, air horns and angels singing the hallelujah chorus; the gods and goddesses and the high priestess of bakeries had smiled righteously upon me.
I must confess it felt like there was something in my eye. I’m thinking that as my salivary glands went into over-drive, some sort of neurological spill over occurred to cause watering?
But the thing is, I’m a firm believer in taking your pleasures where you find them (erm just to caveat, legal ones, I’m definitely not advocating lawlessness or reckless criminality!) because being a parent is at times bloody hard work.
Being a parent carer is even bloody harder, thankless work and as far as I can find, there’s no resignation clause and as for the pay? Well if you are “lucky” enough to qualify (there are certain criteria and the person you are caring for has to have significant needs taking up significant amounts of time) for carer’s allowance, do the maths – you don’t even get minimum wage for the hours you put in. Oh and no matter how many people you provide care for, you only get a single carer’s allowance.
When you multiply caring for 3 children and an 18-year-old who all have varying medical/social-emotional needs and complexities, there really aren’t enough hours in the day. I go to bed every night with a to-do-list that grows ever longer. For every 2 things I manage to tick off during the course of the day, I seem to have added at least another 5.
It plays on my mind that I have dropped the ball somewhere; have I requested everyone’s medications from the GP and arranged for them to be sent to the pharmacy? Do we have enough feed/containers/giving sets/dressings/lotions and potions in hand to get to the end of the month? Have I transposed all of the appointments that crop up into my phone calendar so I can plan everything round them in the weeks ahead? And woe betide if any of those appointments were only given to me over the phone and I don’t have an actual letter to cross reference and double-check with – will I get the right child to the right hospital/clinic/specialist on the right day and time?!
I’m not ashamed to say I take a concoction of various medications every day to help me manage one way or another; be that for my severe depression, anxiety and inability to sleep or for the acid reflux that plagues me and the dodgy back/neck/shoulders and most recently, excruciatingly painful sciatica (so many carers suffer with joint/muscle pain and problems as result of the physical demands of caring for a loved one with mobility difficulties) I’m acutely aware that these are a crutch for want of a better word. In an ideal world, it would be far better to tackle the sources of the problems permanently. Even better in some far off utopia, it would be to put provisions in place to be proactive instead of reactive. To prevent the aches and pains and feelings of isolation, despair and all the affiliated emotions and physicality’s that go along with being a carer.
I learned to my cost (and that of my families, not to mention the NHS etc) that if we carers don’t put protective measures in to fortify ourselves it all comes crashing down.
I am not unique. As a member of support groups such as SWAN UK – http://www.undiagnosed.org.uk I read far too many comments from parent-carers who face battles similar or even harder than my own.
On other forums I’m a part of in relation to education, health and social care there is a generalised resignation to the fact that accessing support, working WITH organisations or professionals instead of the THEM and US facade is a constantly uphill battle; at best a ‘sorry there’s no money in the system’ approach to outright horrific accounts of utterly despicable, underhand tactics designed to deprive the most vulnerable members of society from the most basic, fundamental human rights and discrediting, even slandering or making false allegations against those who have to pick up the mantle and strive on their loved ones behalf. Probably best I don’t get started. I can feel the vitriol rising and that won’t help the acid reflux!!
Next week from 11th June to 18th June inclusive is Carers Week in the UK. You can learn more here: https://www.carersweek.org It is estimated that in the UK there are 6.5 million carers and that figure is only certain to rise as we face an ageing population who are living longer, an NHS that is under resourced, over stretched and a welfare system that has been not so much stripped back as hacked to death and lord only knows what, if anything will be around in future times to help and support those most in need.
But for now anyway, I have taken care of myself by refuelling with a double shot, fully caffeinated (you don’t say?!) latte and a belly full of apricot danishso I’m bouncing off the walls all fired up to tackle the paperwork and smite those dark forces with a mother’s wrath.
*If anyone suddenly feels the need to shower me in delicious pastries of the apricot kind, you know, I’ll happily take one for the team 😉 Or tell me your own personal sanity savers and maybe I’ll see what else I can try!
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
Strictly speaking I ‘adult’ every day, albeit some days more successfully than others.
Yesterday however, I ‘adulted’ myself to the nines.
So that you can feel comfortable continuing to read and for the avoidance of any misunderstandings, I should reassure you that this post is perfectly respectable and I won’t be revealing anything x-rated or of a delicate nature. You can all breathe a sigh of relief and resist the notion of poking out your own eye-balls/resorting to mind bleach for fear of dodgy pictures and such like!
I don’t know about you dear reader but the majority of the time I don’t feel old enough, responsible enough or even qualified enough to do the “adulting” parts of life. Certainly not with success and authenticity in any event.
Apparently however, being married having children, dog ownership (he might dispute that as pretty sure Milo thinks he owns me) a mortgage and all the other infinitesimal accoutrements of life plus being over a certain age means I automatically qualify as an adult… and there’s no resignation option (well unless you ‘check out’ entirely but that’s generally speaking a bit drastic)
Over the last year particularly, “adulting” has been a part of my life I’d quite like to have run away from.
Somehow wherever I hide, no matter how precisely I have chosen the deepest, darkest recess or how carefully I stick my fingers in my ears and shout la-la-la, the necessity for “adulting” always has a way of finding me….darn it.
And even before last years ‘annus horribilis’ I must confess that I had very often felt like a player in that game “Hedbandz” rather than a real adult.
For the uninitiated, the game compromises of a plastic head band device with a slot in which you stick a card in which states the object/word/profession and the wearer has to ask a series of questions to try & work out what or who they are.
For added ‘fun’ you can do a timed session so they have to guess in a specific time period or a specific number of questions. Adding alcohol into the equation for the ‘Adulty’ version I’m sure can only enhance the fun 🙄 But never in a million years would any card ever depict me as an adult; in fact I think I’m possibly only marginally up from a lemming….
Anyway, what I mean by my ramblings above is, in theory I suppose I should know I’m an adult but the actuality is very different and frankly I really don’t feel I’m quite mature enough to make life or death (somewhat over dramatic!) decisions on a day to day basis when I can barely decide what to cook for dinner!
So now I’ve long-windedly explained that, I’ll get to why I ‘adulted’ properly yesterday.
For those of you who have followed my blog for a while or who know me in the ‘real world’ you are probably familiar with my involvement in SWAN UK.
SWAN stands for syndromes without a name and it is the only specialist support network in the UK dedicated to families of children and young people affected by a syndrome without a name.
Having 2 children who are classified as SWANS – they are both medically complex and although they have multiple diagnosed difficulties/needs, we don’t have an over-arching diagnosis that draws everything together – getting support from SWAN UK over 5 years ago made a huge difference to myself and the whole family. In fact, if we had not joined SWAN UK (its free!) we would have had no idea where to even begin to think of living when we moved to the UK some 4 years ago.
Mr Def Not The W’s was allocated Leeds as a base when he joined his new airline but we knew nothing about the area, about hospitals, schools, housing and services and so it was to my trusty network of online friends that I turned to to seek advice and guidance in helping us formulate a plan.
Of course SWAN UK’s services go far beyond the things I mention above. You can read more about the vital support they provide here: http://www.undiagnosed.org.uk/
Over the years, the advice, reassurance, sense of belonging and community not to mention the family days out, coffee mornings and get togethers have been a huge source of comfort, support and a wealth of experience for me.
Back in 2013 it became apparent that holding down a job, even working from home as I had done since 2008, in a role that I could fit around my children, was no longer viable.
I eventually found that in order to keep on top of work I was in a seemingly endless cycle of being up very early, going to bed very late and working all the hours in between that weren’t occupied with the needs of the family including weekends. Something had to give. It was *almost* my sanity.
Although I don’t miss the crazy relentlessness of those days and we are fortunate in that we can (just about) manage for me not to work (and are hugely grateful at times to our parents for stepping in when an unexpected bill/costs rears their ugly head) I do miss that feeling of achievement and accomplishment.
So in September 2015 I decided I would like to try and do something useful with my life and if possible, give a little something back.
I recognised that combining this with (at the time) 3 children with extra needs was going to potentially be problematic. (Turns out we now have 4 children with additional needs, although our eldest is almost 18 and would revolt against the use of the word child!)
I decided to volunteer to be a SWAN UK parent representative for North Yorkshire…. if they would have me! And they did.
In fact, this was absolutely perfect because recognising that caring for medically/physically and or cognitively complicated children can mean life doesn’t follow the best, most carefully laid plans, SWAN UK are happy for parent representatives to volunteer as much or as little of our time as we are able to give. They also understand that sometimes we have to drop everything with little to no notice and have always made it clear that the needs/demands of our children, wider family and ourselves are paramount.
Over the years of being a SWAN UK parent representative, I have spoken at a Rare Disease conference about my experience of being a parent of undiagnosed children; I have contacted my MP about being part of an APPG (all party parliamentary group) to discuss and raise awareness of being undiagnosed and the implications that has on families as a whole, not just the affected individual. I have visited Parliament and spoken to a wide variety of professionals about the difficulties of living with the unknown and unexpected as well as assisted in organising days out to celebrate Undiagnosed Children’s Day (last Friday in every April) arranged coffee mornings and fund-raising events.
I don’t want to come across as holier than thou but aside from (hopefully) raising awareness and sign posting SWAN UK, it did make me feel useful and purposeful again.
It gave me an opportunity to step outside the role of parenting my own children’s medical management and hopefully gave a voice to others in a similar situation.
Anyway back to the reason behind the recent adulting: after something of a hiatus in 2017, I attended a professionals meeting at our local hospital.
Having contacted the Harrogate and District Hospital administrative team (via FB messenger no less!) I pretty much threw myself on their mercy. They kindly directed me to the Head of Paediatric Nursing and The Head of Paediatrics and we set up an appointment Gulp.😳
The fact that the head of paediatrics is also my children’s consultant was not lost on me and was more than slightly daunting.
Somehow, seeing me in a different role to G Man or Minx’s Mum felt strangely discombobulating; at least in the run up to the meeting itself and I was plagued with disconcerting dreams that I would somehow disgrace both myself and SWAN UK.
Nonetheless, I asked SWAN HQ to send me some literature and armed with this, my trusty, very bright pink SWAN UK bag, business cards (get me! I’m posh!!) and a lanyard, I put my big girl pants on (erm figuratively you understand, I haven’t gone totally Bridget Jones yet) and my “grown up” clothes on.
Being only 5ft almost 3 inches, adulting clothes usually involve heels for me. Fretting that I didn’t want to look like I was trying too hard or heading out for a slap up meal, I opted for heeled boots, a patterned skirt & top, with a bit of jewellery and a swish of eyeliner & lippy.
On the inside I may have felt about 5 and was quaking like a jelly but externally I *hopefully* projected confidant, knowledgeable and approachable….
Obviously I couldn’t really ask those present at the meeting if I had successfully captured that but my audience were enthusiastic and receptive. They were keen to read and then display the literature I provided and told me that they would be disseminating the information to fellow colleagues, the Paediatric ward, Child Development Centre, Parents Room and Paediatric clinics. I also got agreement to have a stand in the foyer of the hospital to coincide with Undiagnosed Children’s Day in April. So all in all, I think it went well.
I came away feeling positive and uplifted and like a real-life proper grown up for the first time in a very long time. I’m pretty sure I didn’t have my skirt tucked into my knickers at any point or commit any other embarrassing epic social faux pas’s so all in all winner winner… I hope…. 😊
I’m not often given to introspection or too much dwelling on the past; after all, it rarely helps in changing anything going forward and dredges up old emotions and difficulties that you can’t fix. Indeed, as my Father is so fond of saying “If your Aunty had bo**ocks, she would be your Uncle! (so couth, you can tell where I get my social graces from can’t you?!)
Don’t get me wrong, I’m rather partial to the fond memories of yester- year and have (very!) rose tinted views of those halcyon days of early child rearing. In fact, I must be more than fond, some would say questionably insane and definitely have done more than reflecting on memories since I ended up with 4 of the now not so little blighters but generally speaking, I am much more about the present and the future. Of course there are lessons we can learn from our past. History tells us that often enough right? (although judging by the current state of world affairs, I’m not so sure what we learned but this isn’t a political piece so I will move swiftly on.)
So, why the title of this blog? Well, I’ll get to that properly in a minute but first let me explain that, 29th April 2016 sees the annual celebration of Undiagnosed Children’s Day – an event that is hugely important to families like mine because it gives us the opportunity to come together, support each other and know that we have something unique to celebrate – our uniqueness is flipping awesome!!
In a world defined by labels, especially where special needs, medical issues/conditions are concerned, in a myriad of coloured badges, ribbons, stickers, plastic bracelets, just giving pages etc etc, we too have a specific day to raise awareness, feel the love and hopefully share some of the important info we have all learned over the years, which might, just might, prevent another parent or carer feeling alone and isolated; a space truly dedicated to those who don’t have a diagnosis.
Back in January a group of SWAN UK (SWAN UK: Home) bloggers got together to focus on this years Undiagnosed Awareness Day and some of the key points that we as parent- carers would like to get across to the world at large about why it’s so important to spread the word and ensure that all those in need of support find their way to us. Aside from a weekend of laughter, giggles, and perhaps more than the occasional glug of pinot grigio (strictly post workshop you understand!) there were many, many issues that came to light.
In spite of it being the year 2016 and the huge advances in medical science and technology, we know that approximately 6000 children are born EVERY YEAR without a name for the medical issues and difficulties that they face. One in 25 children is born with a genetic condition and based on current data, 50% of children undergoing genetic testing through the NHS won’t get a diagnosis! Scary reading isn’t it? Even more scary being a part of that statistic but regular readers of my blogDefinitely Not The Walton’s…. | The Life & Crimes of a …will know that we have 2 children with what is felt to be an undiagnosed genetic condition.
Our youngest children are 9 and 7 respectively but our journey on the undiagnosed path only began shortly after the birth of our youngest child and it leads me back succinctly to the title of this piece. Over the years, and most particularly in the early days of learning that we had a physically and medically complicated child, there are so many things that would have been helpful to know; so many things that I wish someone had taken the time to explain to me, not least of which that actually answers wouldn’t be forthcoming just like that and that 7 years into our journey of riddles, we would not necessarily be any closer to unravelling the mystery. That at times, the plot would actually thicken!
The Minx in particular is a conundrum most contraire (entirely reflected in her personality too!) Her response to specific investigations to define whether her overall condition is muscle related or nerve related (albeit with some interaction from both) have repeatedly come back as inconclusive. Frustratingly, more than one of her consultants has admitted that clinically they don’t see children in the pattern she presents with – technically the results produced don’t happen or are more clear cut – not in the Minx’s case naturally!
Normally such investigations define whether the problem is nerve OR muscle based but in Minx’s case, neither can be ruled in or out since aspects from each are prevalent and not in a helpful, lets pin this down kind of a way.
Perhaps more importantly, will we get one that means anything? Despite the rapid advances in genetics, many parents are still only receiving a bunch of numbers and letters, detailing duplications/mutations or missing links and these being so rare in themselves, tell them nothing about what to hope for in their child’s future or how/if any future children they may go on to have will be affected. Whilst we have definitely closed the door (what do you mean after the horse has bolted?!) on that particular matter, I still couldn’t answer when my 16 year old asked if any future children he may have will be affected.
So if I could go back to the me of old, at the start of this phase in her life, mother of a newborn, beautiful baby girl, I would reassure her that actually, even 7 years after being on this undiagnosed journey, she would still have her marbles (as much as any 30 year old +10+1 mother of 4 can have anyway) that she would hold it together most of the time (see earlier comment in brackets!) and that nothing she did/didn’t do was to blame, not even that rogue glass of wine or piece of brie that crept in somewhere along the line during the early days of unknown pregnancy.
I would give that woman a hug and tell her she would find a way through those early days of painful physiotherapy, 3 times a day doing stretches, 3 times a week at the child development centre with a distressed toddler screeching his accompanying woes to the cacophony of crying. I would show her that the all physiotherapy would produce a strongly independent child who can hold a pen, draw, colour and write beautifully in joined up hand writing no less.
I would tell her to ignore the off the cuff remark from some ‘helpful’ consultant about the possibility of her child never walking – after all if they can’t tell me what’s ‘wrong’ with my daughter, how can they tell me what’s right? A far too simplistic view of course but you get the gist.
I would let her see those days of feeding difficulties that resulted in 6 different meals being prepared in the desperate hope that she would eat something, ANYTHING (even a cheesy wotsit) would result in a self assured little girl who despite not managing much in volume from oral consumption, would have a palette far superior to her typical kids who would happily survive on a diet of pasta and pizza. Present the Minx with a plate of smoked salmon, coleslaw, olives, Bruschetta, salad, you name it really, she would tuck in with gusto. At the very least if she is having an off day and food is a total no-no, that her feeding tube, specialist milk and pump will sustain her.
Perhaps most importantly I would show her that she would draw on reserves of strength that she never knew she had. That she would stand up to Doctors and consultants and nurses who thought they knew better but woe betide you confront or ignore a mother preparing to support her child in times of medical need. You may have the letters after your name, the fancy certificates, diplomas and steady surgical hand but I, I have my child’s utmost well-being, heart and soul to think of and in that, other than my child herself, I rule supreme. I really hope in reading this that it comes across as intended, not as some arrogant, bigwig, thinking I know more than the medical teams, but that I understand my daughter and her needs better than anyone else. My future self would probably also tell me right now to stop justifying what I mean 🙂
Instead of 4 years gadding about in the no-man’s land of the undiagnosed, I could have been part of a fantastic, amazing, inspirational support group of parents who would have scooped me up, drawn me in and given me a place to belong. That me would have relished the feeling of being ‘home’ in spite of the unknown, knowing someone would be there to answer my random worries in the middle of the night when swans like to cause mischief and fight sleep (no cleaning the cat litter box out did NOT cause Minx and G-Man’s issues!)
So now, this me, wants to help other parents, wrap them in the warm blanket of understanding and support and light the way to SWAN UK. You, Dear Reader, can help to. How? Please donate whatever you can to SWAN UK’s: Just Giving page or Virgin Money Giving page.
I was invited by SWAN UK to attend a blogging workshop to discuss techniques, skill sets, twitter and the issues of being a parent of an undiagnosed child in general, especially bearing in mind that April 29th 2016 will be this years Undiagnosed Children’s Awareness Day.
Us parent bloggers are hoping to bring forth some pretty darn spectacular pieces to raise greater awareness as well as much needed funding. You can check out more about the work of SWAN UK and read some of the many amazing blogs from fellow parents on the SWAN UK Facebook page:
Being invited to meet and liaise with a pretty fab bunch of women, booked into a hotel for 2 nights no less, no kids, no medications or feeds to prepare was definitely a win win situation for me. RESULT!!
To his ongoing credit and ever accruing brownie points, hubby truly stepped up to the plate and agreed to drive me down to Birmingham where the event was taking place, tagging along all 4 of our children, their various accoutrements plus his drill so that he could carry out some minor DIY issues for his Mum who lives nearby.
Although the preparations beforehand required some kind of military style organisational skills and when we finally left the house, it looked like we were going for 2 weeks not 2 nights, we made it out the door on Friday night running only 20 minutes later than our planned departure which by Beaton Family standards meant we were actually on time.
Traffic was in our favour and the amount of FB notifications pinging out in the car suggested I wasn’t the only excited SWAN mama. To be fair, I think some of us were giddy with the thought of having uninterrupted sleep in a hotel room, although since most of us stayed up chatting and quaffing the odd glass of wine (or 3) into the small hours, the sleep factor meant little in the end. As another Mum put it so eloquently: we are SWAN parents, who needs sleep?!
Prior to the meet up, there had been plenty of discussions about the important factors of the weekend: what to wear, how many pairs of shoes to pack, whether we were going “OUT OUT” after the workshop and who would be having a fake tan in advance. 😉 Mindful of course of the importance of the event itself, we also reminded each other to bring lap tops, tablets and so on so that we could actually turn our attention to the reasons for the weekend.
I have to confess that although I love my tribe dearly, knowing that they were in the more than capable hands of my hubby and my mother in law, I didn’t have any qualms about leaving them (although of course I did miss them….a bit) but for one of the Mummy’s concerned, it was the first time she had ever left her swan in 5 years and that is no mean feat. She also left him for not one but 2 nights – a pretty fantastic effort for a first timer.
I’d like to think that she went home rejuvenated and wanting to do it all again but as she had the dubious “pleasure” of being my room mate and we spent waaaaaayyyy too much time chatting, I’m pretty sure if she goes to any other weekends, she will want a room all to herself!
Friday night saw a handful of us get together as the majority of the team were arriving the next day. It was good to put faces to names – or faces to blogs – many of us have never met in the “real” world (there are over 1000 members in the SWAN UK group, obviously not all of them blog) and although I have met a number of SWAN UK parents in the past on days out, coffee mornings and such like, many of the group have become firm friends but only on a “virtual” basis.
In my experience, SWAN UK is a very unique and special organisation. Bearing in mind that none of our children have a diagnosis, or they may only be newly diagnosed/ obtain a diagnosis that is so rare very little is known about it; in some case they only get a series of random letters and deletions which no doubt make sense to the medical bods but tell us very little about out children’s future prognosis. Our children’s needs and issues can vary dramatically -those who are profoundly medically complex/fragile, those who are physically disabled or cognitively delayed, there is the most wonderful sense of inclusion, belonging, a glue that holds us together if you will. There is always a friendly voice, a wealth of information and experience and a real feeling of community so every time I am lucky enough to meet more SWAN UK parents, I really do enjoy the connections we have.
Saturday morning dawned far too early after too much chatting but fortified by a stonking breakfast (waffles yum!) we attempted to find the conference venue. Having negotiated the delights of Birmingham city centre which is presently in the middle of a huge rejuvenation project and thus thoroughly confused the sat nav, we eventually made it to the conference venue and sat down to an unlimited supply of coffees and pastries. If it wasn’t for the fact that our team leader was a bit of a whip cracker and determined that we would knuckle down and stick to her well thought out and planned agenda for the day, we might have thought we were just out for a jolly.
However, ice breaker games played, we quickly settled to the tasks in hand and brain stormed like mad. Whilst it has to be said that I am still a total technophobe and probably a liability (turns out “plug ins” on blogs has nothing to do with hair straighteners, who knew?!) I learned some very valuable and useful info which I hope will assist me in blogging henceforth. I can’t pretend I truly understand widgets and linkies and all the other terminology that was bandied about but I do know some pretty good places to do more research and a lovely, very experienced fellow blogger has offered to take me under her wing and tweak mine as necessary…an offer she may live to regret when she realises quite how kack-handed I really am with tech!
I also got to develop my understanding of Twitter a bit better and whilst I don’t think you will find me a tweeting regular, I can see the benefits of such instantaneous connections with a wide audience. So far my main “achievements” (and once again I use this in the loosest of terms) have been to notify Virgin Trains that our carriage had been plunged into blackness on the way home from a London trip and to organise impromptu special assistance for the MIL when all other lines of coms had failed. Nonetheless, I am determined to keep going and use it to follow others, link to my blog, raise awareness of undiagnosed children etc etc.
It was a pretty full on day and we finished at 6pm with the only decision to be made thereafter as to how “Out out” we wanted to be by the end of the night. Our SWAN UK co-ordinator dispatched us with thanks and a clear message that we were no longer her responsibility with more than a sigh of relief.
We had a meal booked in a well known Pizza establishment…handily located right next to the choppy waters of the Birmingham canal with no railing or fencing surrounding it whatsoever. Tottering along in my “out-out” high heeled shoes (the Minx has already ear-marked them for future use!) and not at this point having had even a sip of wine, it was a pretty sober inspiring thought that I did not want to end up having an impromptu swim post meal….Nonetheless, I did “force” myself to have the odd glass, just to be sociable!
11;30pm quickly crept up and the sensible ones amongst us (i.e. not me!) decided to go back to the hotel, leaving the rest of us to continue our frivolities in a bar where the volume of the music threatened to make my ear drums bleed.
I must admit it was quite a relief to leave in the end and brave the chilly walk back, enjoying what can only be described as the spectacle of Birmingham “yoof” out to party on a Saturday night. I know I am officially old now as not only was the music far too loud but on more than one occasion I found myself goggling at the skimpy attire and scantily clad folk, muttering that they would catch their death of cold and thankful for my full length parka coat, skinny jeans and jumper…although the sparkly shoes still made me feel vaguely rebellious 🙂
Looking forward to posting more and using my new found knowledge to bling things up in the future, I bid you adieu for now. If you would like to, I now have an FB page you can follow: Definitely Not The Waltons
*Erm, aware last 3 blogs have had shoes in the piccies…..maybe I can get a shoe sponsorship deal?!