The Rare Conundrum…..

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 😉

‘& here we have the lesser-spotted children horribles preserved for prosperity….’

2 years ago I wrote a blog piece to explain what being rare means and how it affects our family. If you would like to have a read: https://definitelynotthewaltons.com/2018/02/

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?

Furry friends

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. 

This is what just 2 weeks of tube feeding equipment/nutritional supplement looks like….. for 1 child!! 🤦🏽‍♀️

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.

Thank you SWAN UK for balloons!

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. 

But despite being on genetic studies from the age of 6 months, enrolling on DDD – Deciphering Development Disorders: https://www.ddduk.org in 2013 and https://www.genomicsengland.co.uk/about-genomics-england/the-100000-genomes-project/ in 2015, at the age of 11 ,we still have no over-riding genetic answers.

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 ❣️

Planes (no trains) & automobiles…..*

*also a boat(s) but that doesn’t scan as well!

** & yes I know it’s a film title..

Bonjour mes amours!

It is the end of the 6 weeks school summer holidays (in England) and we have been lucky enough to spend 2 gloriously hot weeks in Southern France, followed by a mammoth drive to Paris, a dabble in EuroDisney and now as I sit and type, we wait expectantly to board the boat back to Blighty…. for an onwards drive back ‘oop north.’

It has been epic; in all senses of the word. I don’t know if the ‘cool’ kids still use the word epic to describe an amazing time or not but it definitely falls under that.

Equally however, as per the Oxford English Dictionary classifications, our hols could be defined as a ‘heroic/grand saga’ requiring much ‘bravery’ and a ‘long and arduous journey;’ yeah definitely all of that…

It would be fair to say that when I first mentioned our 3000 mile (return) travel plans to various medical personnel involved with our enfants horribles , there was some *slightly* nervous tittering. And it wasn’t just me doing it. 😆

Apparently taking all 4 of your offspring aged between 10-19 on such a journey borders on insanity/madness. Especially if they also happen to have some issues….

And I won’t lie, it hasn’t all been champagne (not much of that actually!) and roses.

When Mr DNTW’s informed me he had booked for us to go away way back in March, Minx and I were cooped up in GOSH, awaiting the ‘big plan.’

It seems an age ago now but at the time, we were all in need of some cheering up as it had rapidly become apparent during that stay that we were in for the long haul; that the carefully laid plans thus far had been stomped on, ripped up and had gone awry. The more cynical of us *may* have argued that the plans had never been properly drawn up in the first place but that’s a whole other story…..

So when Mr D made his triumphant announcement about the booked holiday I was rather more concerned by where he had found the magic money tree to pay for said holiday (still looking 😉) or whether he had sold my collection of shoes & handbags on e-bay to pay for it!

Through the lengthy weeks of hospital time, hospital stays and subsequent limbo, having the holiday to focus on became a shining beacon of hope and something to really look forward to.

Despite Minx and G-Man’s combined efforts to throw (surgical) spanners in the works, their procedures came and went. Healings were (are) complicated and I had to stock up on the mobile equivalent of a field hospital which brought its own issues in terms of getting everything delivered in time and space in the car

No room at the inn…the grey trunks are all medical supplies…& there’s a roof box full as well!

I didn’t even really flinch (too) much at the astronomical quotes we got for travel insurance – ranging from cheapest at £1300 to £2600!!! Actually I did; I really did…. until I cried when the most reasonable company called me back after I had phoned to give them more info (like many I suspect our family don’t fit neatly into black and white questions: is …….a wheelchair user? Well yes but not all the of the time? Apparently that’s like being ‘slightly pregnant’ where insurance companies are concerned – you either are or aren’t, no middle ground) and declared that based on the additional details I had provided, Minx was in fact uninsurable!! 🙈 I hadn’t even mentioned the words “undiagnosed” – a veritable death knell where insurance is concerned!

Eventually after much research and consulting of the oracle – ie suggestions from wise friends, we went with our bank (who already provide us with an annual standard cover automatically) and just disclosed the ins and outs of our weirds and wonderful for a slightly less eye-watering cost that covers us world wide… bargain really!

The logistics of accommodating the varying needs of a large, dysfunctional family and ensuring everyone’s needs, sleeping arrangements, well-being, not to mention enjoyment, fun, food and safety could all be achieved (& without the budget of Croesus in the process) were significant but you know #nicerproblems# to have and all that.

Given our ASD’s son’s needs for a safe place to escape when overloaded and also just generally being a teenager, (🤢) we wanted to ensure he had his own room and a space for down time. So the right, affordable accommodation was paramount.

Eldest son H is now working and we weren’t sure if he would still want to come with the ‘rents on holibobs.

Turns out however that in-spite of us lowly oldies cramping his style, an expenses paid trip to sunnier climes, very much met with his approval! Funny that….

Given H works in the travel industry on contract, getting time off/shifts swapped to accommodate a break was like something out of the Krypton Factor and so he couldn’t join us for the entire trip.

I’ve already done my proud mama-bear boasting moment on my personal FB but just in case you missed it and also, well ‘just because’ here’s a little mini pic😊

He thought he could *probably* come in the car with us. He couldn’t…..whether he wanted to or not… I flatly renounced any such suggestions. We genuinely didn’t have the seat space or rather luggage space. The car being a 7 seater was neither here nor there.

In actual fact, I can’t help feeling that he rather got the best end of the deal: no long & ardous 2 full days of driving (& boat) journey to contend with, no smelly cooped up car with fractious siblings (& even more fractured parents); merely a solo 2 hour flight in blissful air con before arriving, unflustered in Nice. Nice in Nice and all that…. 🌝🌞

I’ll spare you the ennui of a day by day, blow by blow account of the DNTW’s vacation extraordinaire (almost as enthralling as looking at other people’s holidays snaps right?! 😉) but suffice to say it wouldn’t have been an “us” holiday without hospital trips… yes that’s right. Trips plural.

Surprisingly, the child I thought most likely to test-drive the French medical system and give my school-girl French a run for its money, behaved herself.

However, I was more than slightly out of my comfort zone when having to liaise with the French emergency and medical services for 2 of the rest of the gang.

It transpires my ’comprehensive’ French knowledge of menus, food stuffs in general, encore du vin (more wine!) and where is the toilet/library phrases memorised from school weren’t terribly helpful or useful. In fact I think the alleged (possibly apocryphal) Hungarian phrase “my postillion has been struck by lightning” (in French) would have been more helpful than what I do know of the French medical terminology.

Nonetheless, I attempted my best “Franglais” and despite murdering the language of lurve, (I never really thought I would fervently wish I had studied French tenses in greater detail but turns out I was wrong) some Gallic shrugging, frantic gesticulating and resorting to google translate as well as stick drawings, I made myself (sort of) understood; enough anyway that the right areas of my children’s’ anatomies/difficulties were attended too on both occasions. I think I probably gave the medics a bit of a giggle at my expense too…. intended to ask if I could sit but actually suggested I was a plate… I blame too much sun, shock & being very tired for that one and anyway, ‘assayez’ and ‘assiete’ are quite similar 🤔

Fortunately it transpires that the words for ‘jejunostomy’ and ‘autism’ in French are essentially much the same, although they sound decidedly more exotic and sexy en francaise. Pathological demand avoidance and sensory processing disorder don’t however seem to translate…. 🤷🏻‍♀️

In any event the care we received from our European brethren was par excellence, albeit if I hadn’t already appreciated our marvellous FREE at the point of use #NHS# as much as I do, I definitely would have done by the time we proceeded to the billing department.

Much like the UK, the French medical system do have a duty of care to provide emergency care irrespective of your ability to pay but they are VERY quick to demand your passport & health document details and even if you possess an EHIC ( https://www.nhs.uk/using-the-nhs/healthcare-abroad/apply-for-a-free-ehic-european-health-insurance-card/) you may find you are presented with a bill immediately.

It does however have to be said that for the care we received – ambulance trip by 3 emergency personnel, urgent care access, paediatric emergency Doctor consult, 4 xrays, resulting antibiotics, wound care and dressings – the resulting €92 bill was very reasonable… and perhaps something that given the dire status of our health system and the amount of “health tourism” that seems prevalent in our country, something that needs further consideration in good ole Blighty.

We didn’t get presented with a bill for our “Second day out with the emergency services” away day when we checked out; maybe it was my presence of mind to thrust the EHIC document straight at them BEFORE actual treatment took place or maybe due to the comprehensive nature of tests that were required, they took pity and felt presenting me with an eye-watering invoice might also necessitate an ECG of my own but I am told we will receive it in the post….. I won’t hold my breath for obvious reasons!!

One bizarre observation I will venture: when sitting in French Doctor/hospital waiting rooms, it transpires it is necessary to greet all those who walk in and out with a chirpy “Bonjour” or smiley “Au revoir!” How mad is that?! They don’t do the politely British thing of ignoring each other at all costs, eyes down-cast, studying the floor and hoping no one in your immediate vicinity is Ebola carrying when they cough & splutter into a hankies. Non! There is a lot of eye contact and even some bisous (kissing) when they (presumably) know each other. Another good reason to have nothing to do with trains in this post – if they greet each other like this at the Doctors, I can’t even imagine what they get up to on locomotives – definitely not the British way!

Thankfully, the vast majority of our holiday was a break away from all things medical (aside from the standard doling out of pills, lotions, potions & generalised care the kids necessitate day to day) and whilst I wouldn’t necessarily go as far as to say it was relaxing, it has been great to enjoy time together, sun, sea, days out, pool days, ice-creams, the odd Kir-Royale 🍸 (or 3) here and there and a last hurrah with the younger 2 at DisneyLand Paris.


Pre Thunder Mountain…. there weren’t quite such good spirits after 🤣

So now we are returning home, no doubt back to an enormous pile of bills (maybe the French hospital one will have beaten us home?!) laundry and lord knows what state the house will be in as the older 2 have been home without us over the last few days…. But we have suntans and smiles and precious memories and that makes it all worthwhile

.