Category Archives: Special Needs Parenting

20 years of #mischiefandmagic

A lot can happen in 20 years.

In the years since our wedding in December 1999, our family has doubled in size and we’ve moved schools, houses and jobs at a rate that has to be seen to be believed. We’ve survived illness and loss within both our families and our friends, and continue to do so on a daily basis thanks to some long-term diagnoses that have oft-times caught us when we were least expecting them. Chronic illness has become a much bigger part of our lives that we could ever have imagined, but with that has also come some amazing friendships, connections and opportunities that we never even dreamed would happen and that, in many ways, I wouldn’t change for the world.

One such relationship that we have all absolutely come to value is the one with the charity, Over The Wall. They have been a phenomenal support to G and M since both first attended their camps in 2016 and are, in an almost unbelievable stroke of serendipity, also celebrating 20 years since they were first launched by UK businessman Joe Woods following in Paul Newman’s footsteps and the development of the Hole in the Wall Gang camps in Connecticut USA in the late 1980s.

So what are we doing to make this a year of note?

As far as our anniversary goes, I’m hoping that Mike and I might manage a night out somewhere special, though celebrating the week before Christmas can make that difficult as we negotiate the huge numbers of office Christmas parties that we inevitably encounter when trying to book a table anywhere without a lot of forward planning.

And, of course, it will come as no surprise that we are also working hard to raise awareness and funds to support Over The Wall’s ambitious plans to take a record-breaking 1,000 children to camp this year. Mike started the year in style with a sponsored polar dip on New Year’s Day and we’ve turned our hands to a few other things – some old, some new – to see just how much we can raise. We followed the “sparking joy” fashion and adopted a Marie Kondo approach to clearing out our wardrobes, committed to giving a regular amount each month and even stood in the entrance of our local Tesco superstore a couple of weeks ago to collect what we could and spread the word about the camps too.

We’ve taken OTW with us wherever we’ve travelled, sporting branded t-shirts, hoodies and bandanas with aplomb and almost quite literally went “over the wall” with them during our visit to Berlin.

G and M have obviously been a big part of many of our efforts, but are now launching an appeal of their own. Their yearning to do something truly spectacular has unfortunately been somewhat hampered by not yet being quite old enough to participate in the activity of their choice, but they have instead picked the next best option in their eyes and will be taking part in a sponsored indoor skydive at the end of this month.

How can you help?

Well, it goes without saying that any sponsorship you can give would be very gratefully received by G, M and OTW, especially if you can help them meet their fundraising target of £200 – scaled back somewhat from M’s original suggestion of £20,000 – by visiting their fundraising page here.

If you’re not able to donate, but live near a Tesco store in one of the following areas*, OTW is one of their Bags of Help Centenary Grants recipients until the end of August and by adding your blue token to their box, and encouraging friends, family and fellow shoppers to do the same, you will help them receive a significant grant that will be genuinely life-changing. Remember “Every Little Helps”, even if that’s by a blue token!

Finally, sharing the OTW message of #mischiefandmagic with friends and across your social media channels will not only help the charity reach even more of the estimated 50,000 children and young people living with serious health challenges across the UK, but sharing our fundraising page will hopefully bring even more cash donations pouring in to help them achieve their goals not only this year, but in the future too.

Thank you!

*OTW is currently starring in stores across: Perth & Kinross, Angus, Stirling, Fife, Clackmannanshire, South Ayrshire, East Ayrshire, Dumfries & Galloway, Scottish Borders, East Lothian, Midlothian, Somerset (inc Bristol), Wiltshire and Swindon.

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Go Big or Go Home

June was definitely busy, but it didn’t really prepare me for the double whammy that hit as it was heading out the door and ushered July in in unbelievable style. Many of those who know me personally will have already seen this news and have stated the same thought in a multitude of ways, but I think my sister-in-law said it best what she commented “…M can’t go small, can he?..“!

It all started a few weeks ago when M came back into the house with 4 or 5 insect bites on either side of his waist. This is not an uncommon occurrence in our household as we are fortunate to live at the far end of a small village, right on the edge of farmland and during the summer months, M spends a lot of his free time running around our paddock, jumping on the trampoline and climbing trees. It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? And, to be fair, it mostly is and the less perfect elements of insect bites and his reaction to cut grass are really small and insignificant in comparison. The bites were itchy and red, but nothing looked especially untoward or unusual, although 1 in particular on his right side appeared to have grown into a reasonably large welt thanks to his incessant scratching of it. I shrugged my shoulders, rubbed some cream on to it to relieve the irritation and promptly forgot all about it.

Fast forward 2 weeks or so and M was now complaining of a small lump on his ribs – the right-hand side once again – which was causing him pain and disturbing his sleep every time he rolled over onto it. After putting up with his incessant moaning, I finally capitulated and booked an appointment for him to see our GP to have it checked. I had spotted that that 1 bite was still in situ and now sporting a rather angry-looking red rash around it, so determined it worth getting that checked out whilst we were there too. Add in the fact that one of M’s classmates had been diagnosed with shingles the week before and I had yet one more thing swirling around the back of my head as something else to be mentioned as well.

As soon as M pulled up his shirt in the GP’s surgery, there was no doubt in my mind that we were going to be in for the long haul. As well as the suspect bite and small lump visible on his ribs, there was now a further red rash over his right ribs, which the GP didn’t hesitate to confirm as shingles with really nothing more than a cursory glance in its direction. He didn’t want to start M on anti-viral drugs straight away, but warned that if the rash spread, I’d need to get him back in as quickly as possible for a prescription – and 2 days later that’s exactly what I did. The small lump proved to be nothing more than an overactive and swollen lymph node likely to be the result of his body desperately fighting off the shingles infection and it was quickly dismissed.

However, it was the bite that really raised our Dr’s eyebrows and after a few probing questions from both him and me, I had a sneaking suspicion that I knew where we were headed with this rash. One week on, a 5-day course of anti-virals to treat his spreading shingles rashes and the third doctor’s appointment of the week, there was no question what was going on with M. The red rash circling his bite had become the most perfect bulls’eye rash and Lyme Disease was diagnosed instantly. Fortunately, we appear to have caught this condition early and we all have our fingers (and toes) tightly crossed hoping that the 3 weeks of strong antibiotics will stop the disease in its tracks and reduce the risk of ongoing problems from it.

We’ve been lucky. M is feeling more tired and achy than normal and has been heard grumbling that this double diagnosis hasn’t secured him any time of school. However, his indomitable spirit in the face of unquestionable challenges has shone through and he has determined that he was going to carry on as much as possible despite feeling truly under the weather. The shingles rashes are mostly gone and the impressive target rash of Lyme Disease is also fading as the antibiotics do their thing. There is no question that it all could have been an awful lot worse, but I do wish that M would start to listen when I say that there really is no need to take a “Go big or go home” attitude to life!

An Enriching Experience

June always seems to be a busy month for G and M and this year has been no exception to that unwritten rule. As well as the hell that was the lead up to G’s Year 10 mock exams – the exams themselves have proved to be not quite as stressful as we all feared they might be – there’s also been the much more enjoyable enrichment week for M and G’s work experience week too. Add in Live Lounge performances at school, end of year performances with their performing arts schools, we’ve finally found ourselves at the end of June and it’s time to take a deep breath, enjoy the last few weeks of school (if that’s even possible) and look forward to the summer holidays.

Last year, M was part of the school-based activities week as he wasn’t in a position to be able to consider being away from home from a health perspective and this year was no different, although the school makes the decision that all Year 8 students remain on-site, rather than being offered residential trips. After much deliberation, he was fortunate enough to be awarded a place on his first choice activity: the photography course. M really enjoys taking photos and has captured some really stunning snaps using just his phone’s camera at home. This was an opportunity to learn much more about the craft of photography itself and he spent 4 days learning about shutter speeds, taking action shots, images through water – lots and lots and lots of water! – and using light to write and capture words. He loved every moment of the course and has already decided to start saving up his pocket money so that he can buy his own camera as soon as he practically can.

The Friday was spent on a different activity and much to our surprise, he opted for paint-balling, something that has left him battered and bruised in the past. In fact, M hasn’t been paint-balling since he was hit accidentally by an adult using a high-powered weapon in the wrong part of the course at a friend’s birthday party. Whilst he wasn’t injured particularly and bounced back very quickly, the experience rattled most of the people there as M had his feeding-tube at the time and he was sore for a few days afterwards. However, the prospect of running around with a group of his friends and their plan to gang up on some of the teachers seemed to excite him and he couldn’t wait to go on the Friday even despite the rain. It was another fun-filled day and he enjoyed it all, even if he did come home sporting a rather impressive bruise to his right thigh by the end of it.

Whilst M had a week of enriching and engaging activities, G meanwhile found herself completing her work experience week. Back at the start of the school year, we had gone through a number of possible posts for her to consider and apply to for the week, but in the end she decided to spend the time working at the surveying firm as Mike. She spent her week learning how to carry out and complete property valuations, building surveys and home-buyers reports as well as the more mundane office and administration tasks that all good work placement employers expect: photocopying and shredding! Her Friday saw her spending the day at a building site and finding out about project management and property insurance claims. G very much enjoyed her week, though her diary entry for the Wednesday perhaps sums it up best – when asked “What have you learned about work this week?“, her honest response was “That it’s exhausting!

Young Carers Awareness Day 2019

Today is Young Carers Awareness Day 2019 and the purpose of the day is to raise public awareness of the challenges faced by young people because of their caring role, and to campaign for greater support for young carers and their needs. Young Carers often struggle with mental health problems of their own due to the strains they can find themselves under, hence the launch of their #CareForMeToo campaign.

I was recently invited to write a blog for Over The Wall about the impact of their camps on our family and I chose to particularly focus on the importance of the siblings camps for children like G, who is recognised as a Young Carer locally. I thought I’d take the opportunity to share my thoughts here too.

 “…when one person in the family has a chronic illness, the whole family has it…”

Jamie-Lynn Sigler

When you live with chronic illness you know that it is about so much more than just the disease itself. Pain, exhaustion, medicines, appointments and hospital admissions are often accompanied by a loss of self-confidence, doubts about self-worth and mental health issues that need time, patience and understanding to come to terms with and overcome. As parents to a child with a rare illness that is little known and little understood, Mike and I have had to find a resilience and strength within ourselves to not only support M as he finds his way to understanding his condition and living his life to the fullest, but also to fight those battles that he is not yet ready to tackle himself.

For the last 8 years, since our appointment with M’s first gastro consultant, our focus has been on finding answers and researching ways to give him the best quality of life we can despite the challenges he faces. As he now heads into his teens, we are seeing the fruits of those endeavours as M begins to make his own choices about the foods he eats, knowing full well the reactions he may experience, and taking on more responsibility for his medicines.

You could say that we’re achieving what we set out to do when we got his diagnosis: to raise a young man who won’t let his illness define or constrain him and who believes that he can be successful no matter what; but we have not been alone in supporting M. Family, friends and our local community have walked every step of this journey with us, helping us in more ways than we could ever imagine was possible; but there is one person who has been there since the very beginning, without any choice and yet who loves M unconditionally and is an indisputable rock for him, even when they don’t always see eye to eye.

She is, without a shadow of a doubt, the unsung hero in our family story.

Since the day her baby brother arrived prematurely in her world, G was determined to help out whenever she could. She put up with his incessant screams from what we now realise was undiagnosed pain and looked to comfort him however she could – making him laugh, giving cuddles, reading stories or just bringing him “Cat” when nothing else would do. Like so many siblings to children diagnosed with chronic illness, G has inevitably been side-lined when that illness has dominated family life and despite our determination to make sure she doesn’t miss out because of it, I know there are times when we haven’t got that balance right and given G the attention she deserves and needs.

From the interruption of frequent hospital appointments to badly timed admissions over her birthday 2 years in a row, G has had to take the back seat to M’s illness more times than seems fair and these are not the only ways in which her life has been affected by his diagnosis. We cannot ignore the reality that having a chronically ill sibling has had a massive impact on G and her mental health too. Anxiety, panic attacks, facing fears and anger management issues are all inextricably tied up with the role of being a young person caring for another and it has been crucial we find a supportive environment for her that has taught strategies for dealing with her yo-yoing emotions and provided a safe and understanding outlet for them. Encouraging G’s involvement with our local Young Carers group as well as applying for a place at the Over The Wall Siblings camps have been important steps in recognising the impact that M’s health has had on her over the last 15 years and have helped her feel that we really do understand and appreciate all that she has had to put up with and sometimes give up too.

That time away at OTW was a week for her to be herself, not defined or viewed in her role as M’s big sister and encouraged and allowed her to take time to focus on herself without worrying about him. G came home a different child to the one who had left us, having realised that her life experiences didn’t isolate her in those circumstances and she had found a sense of self-worth that she had been struggling to develop at home and at school. G’s second camp experience saw her develop a confidence and willingness to take on new challenges, knowing that, with a little bit of self-belief and perseverance, no mountain is too big for her to conquer. OTW brought G out from the shadow of M’s ill health, helped her rediscover who she is as an independent individual and gave her her childhood back – and for that I can’t thank them enough.

Polar Dip

Despite the assertions of some Canadian friends that it couldn’t be a “real” polar bear dip without having to break some ice, in the middle of December Mike decided to take part in our local New Year’s Day polar swim. With just a smidge over 2 weeks to prepare for this madness, you wouldn’t be blamed if you thought Mike was completely mad – believe me when I say it was something that went through my mind too – but the reason for it is actually a fantastic one.

You have all heard me talk a lot about the amazing charity, Over The Wall, who provides free therapeutic camps for children with serious health challenges as well as their siblings and families. G and M have been fortunate enough to go to these camps twice each over the last 3 years and the difference it has made to them both is incredible. Since G’s first trip to the South Siblings Camp in 2016, we have taken every opportunity we’ve been able to find to raise awareness and funds for them – from M’s presentation at school to G’s sponsored hair-cut. I’ve talked to more people than I can even begin to count about just how special this charity is and in the last year have been delighted that 2 fellow EGID Mums were successful in their applications for camps too.

2019 marks 20 years since OTW’s first camp in the UK and they are looking to mark that anniversary by being able to send 1,000 children, young people and families to one of their camps. We want to help them achieve that goal, knowing from firsthand experience just how invaluable their camps truly are, and will be spending the year finding new ways to support them just as they have supported G and M.

And that’s why Mike kicked off our fundraising year in style with his Polar swim. He chose to swim in 9° water for 20 minutes – 1 minute for every year that Over The Wall is celebrating this year – and we set a tentative target of £200. Thanks to the generosity of friends and family, Mike not only more than managed his New Year’s Day dip, but also raised a fantastic £223!

If you’re able to give even a small amount, I know that Over The Wall will make very good use of it and you will be helping enrich the lives of young people living with health challenges, just like G and M. You can donate via their special 20 years donation page here.

Reflections of an appointment

I started writing this blog post 12 months ago and had put it to one side then because I wasn’t sure that the time was right to share all that was going on with M’s care at that point, particularly when it came to expressing my hesitation about whether the decisions being made were the right ones or not. Today we find ourselves in an even more emotionally charged situation and are becoming increasingly vexed with the marked lack of progress made over the last year. I revisited this original blog post tonight and decided that it now feels right to express that turmoil and the frustration in dealing with a medical team that appear to have lost their impetus to engage with us and with M. Those words written in italics are about our current experience.

There’s been lots going on over the last 6 months as many of my blog posts about our mini adventures have shown, but the one area I haven’t yet shared is the journey we’ve been exploring with our local consultant as I briefly mentioned last November. The decision to move almost all of M’s care from GOSH to our local hospital has not been an easy one to make, but for many reasons we have concluded that it is possibly the best one for now. Having a complete MDT (Multi-Disciplinary Team) close at hand to discuss all the challenges of M’s health has been invaluable and experiencing first-hand their willingness to see him at the drop of a hat over a 6-week period, where we’ve had 2 “emergency” appointments and 1 planned one, has been a relief, especially when you consider the problems we’ve had with them in the past.

It sounds fantastic doesn’t it? An almost perfect solution to meeting the complex and on-going medical needs of M; and yet, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that we’ve had our ups and downs with some of their suggestions and have not yet found ourselves moving on and making progress from the starting point we had 12 months ago. The overall opinion held is that M’s ongoing problems are not really related to his EGID diagnosis or the numerous foods we have previously identified as being unsafe, but rather a physical problem that is massively affected by psychological influences that are still to be fully explored and identified. We don’t disagree that there absolutely has to be a psychological element to M’s health: how can any child live through the experiences of his first 12 years and not be impacted in that way? But it also feels as if they’re throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water and ignoring all of M’s physical symptoms from birth to 5, a time when it was impossible for him to have developed any fears of new foods or associations that certain foods would cause certain health problems.

It’s been challenging for us to adjust our thinking and look to embrace their suggestions of how to move things forward for M. Experience is constantly nagging at the back of my consciousness, gently reminding me that so many times I have been proved to know my son far better than the doctors treating him; but Mike and I have both worked hard to be positive about their new ideas because ultimately we want what is best for M and what will improve his quality of life beyond his, and our, wildest expectations.

In August 2017, my thoughts stopped there. I wanted so desperately to believe that things were going to change, to improve for M and it was, I think, a conscious decision to not air my hesitations and doubts because I was afraid to unwittingly jinx the improvements we were hoping would come about. However, nearly a year on and things have not changed at all. I now have a child who has struggled his way through the first year of secondary school and has lost the spark that makes him him. M no longer sees a positive in being treated at our local hospital and just wants to return to the care of GOSH, which is the last place he can actively relate to seeing any major changes to his day-to-day living. He has gained a couple of extra foods, but we are only at 9 (chicken, rice, cucumber, apple, pear, parsnips, bacon, onion and banana) and not the 20 that his consultant expected when we met him at the start of June.

At that appointment, the entire MDT acknowledged that M is not the child they knew 12 months ago and commented on his lost enthusiasm for choosing new foods to trial. I have tried so hard to explain to them that I am certain that M is not thinking his body into failing those challenges, but none of us really knows that for sure. The truth is that there are some foods that cause an unquestionable reaction and with others it’s difficult to judge if they’re causing an issue, or if it’s simply a case that we’re not really giving his body time to rest and recover between each trial. I’ll be honest, we’ve decided to relax the rules a lot at key times because it’s becoming increasingly evident that M needs the emotional boost that occasionally being able to eat more “normally” gives him. However, every decision to eat something we wouldn’t usually allow brings with it a set of consequences that are difficult for us all and not just for M to process.

I don’t know where we’re heading or what the next few months hold for M. The one thing we’re all agreed on is that we can’t keep living the current status quo because every day like this destroys another small part of the confidence we have in his medical team and buries his spark even deeper.

#NEAW2018: E is for Engage

May 26: E is for Engage

It’s a late post tonight, much later that I would have hoped, but I’ve been busy helping out with an anniversary celebration for the charity I’m now working for. It’s been a long day, but a fab one and I’m delighted to now be able to bring you my final post for NEAW.

This week has been, as I expected, a quiet week when it’s come to raising awareness of EGID. There were no big fundraising plans, no local radio interview and no article in our local paper. The children didn’t present anything at school this year and I didn’t plait pink ribbon into G’s hair or attach awareness ribbons to their school bags. Mike and I have stuck to our commitment to eat like M for the whole week and that has certainly led to a lot of conversations with my new work colleagues about M’s diagnosis…and how to pronounce “Eosinophilic”!

I’ve written a blog post every day this week which have been read and shared on by you all and whilst the daily posts will finish now this week has come to an end, I will continue to post an insight and an image on my social media channels right up to the end of month. Life might get quieter on the EGID front for most of you, but please remember that it will continue to be a permanent and unavoidable fixture in M’s everyday.

Thank you for engaging with us this week; for walking part of our journey alongside us and all I ask is that you keep helping us fight the battle to raise awareness of it.

#NEAW2018: T is for Thank

May 25: T is for Thank

To everyone who has supported us over the years. To those who have provided listening ears, shoulders to lean on and helped wiped away tears. To friends who have given time, energy, a chance to get away from it all and, most importantly, a large drink when it’s most been needed. To the communities that have walked each step of the journey with us, whether local, worldwide or virtual. To those who have been part of the blogging process over the last 5 years and continue to read my posts and share them on.

To our family and friends. To our wonderful children. To Mike.

Thank you xxx

#NEAW2018: A is for Awareness

May 24: A is for Awareness

Today is all about raising awareness for EGID. At home we’ve been working on putting together a presentation for the end of June, when G and M will be introducing Over The Wall at their performing arts’ school’s end of year fundraising concert. We are, as so many others around the world, huge fans of the 2017 smash hit and all round wonderful film “The Greatest Showman” and the song “This is Me” had a particular resonance for the whole family. M and I chose this track to be the backing track for their OTW Powerpoint presentation and I decided to adapt what I’d already made for this year’s NEAW to raise more awareness.