Category Archives: Special Needs Parenting

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.

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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.

#NEAW2018: C is for Change

May 23: C is for Change

The dictionary defines change as “to make or become different” or “an act or process through which something becomes different“, but what does that really mean in the context of raising awareness about a rare disease?

There are so many things that need changing when it comes to EGID, some of which we can actively work towards achieving and others which can be nothing more than a pipedream at the moment. Educating others about what EGID is and how it affects those diagnosed with it will hopefully bring about a change in attitude in both the community surrounding M and the wider medical profession. Even though this often feels like an uphill battle, it is an achievable target and something we should all keep working towards, chipping away slowly at the seemingly indestructible walls that surround EGID as a valid diagnosis. Those changes in attitude will help M feel less isolated by his health problems and more confident in being the unique individual he is despite his EGID and not because of it.

The 12-year road we’ve travelled since M was born has seen many changes and there is no question that there will be many more to be traversed as he grows towards adulthood. He’s gone from an active, can-eat-everything toddler, through a stage of being a tube-fed child taking 13 medicines multiple times a day to now being a tween eating 9 foods on a regular basis, taking 4 medicines plus a multi-vitamin each day and thriving. The next few years of teenagedom will undoubtedly bring a myriad of changes to be navigated, mostly thanks to those pesky hormones, and which will hit us in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. Who knows how treatments and medical breakthroughs will change as he gets older and the best change we can hope for is that his doctors will find a way to improve his quality of life beyond our wildest expectations.

What are the changes that M would most love to see happen?

  • To be eating as “normally” as possible. What he wants when he wants and with no repercussions at all
  • To be able to go without all of his medicines, especially the E028 drink, and not worry that a reaction could be just around the corner
  • And to not feel different, or alone, or set apart from his friends because of a condition that he can’t predict or control, but can just manage as best he can

What I want is not really a change at all. I want him and G to remember that they are able to live life to its fullest, loving and embracing every moment of it and grasping every opportunity that comes their way and making the most of them all.

#NEAW2018: U is for Unite

May 22: U is for Unite

Over the years, our primary focus for “unite” has been on spending the week, or a part thereof, “Eating like M“. Mike and I are embracing it fully again this year, much to M’s delight, but I have to wonder whether following his restricted diet for 7 days really does enough to show him that we’re standing in unity alongside him. A natural consequence of our choice is that those we work and spend time with during this week will inevitably ask questions, which obviously gives us both a great opportunity to talk about EGID and start to educate the uninitiated, but I keep returning to the question of whether M truly feels a benefit from us standing shoulder to shoulder with him for such a short time.

Of course, the truth is that, for us, every day living with EGID, even though we are not living with the diagnosis and reality of it ourselves, is a day spent supporting M through what has been some of the toughest times he’s had to face in his 12 years. We have lived through and survived the most difficult challenges, but we are still not really living in unison with him. My 30+ years of living with my own chronic illness, Type 1 diabetes, means that I do perhaps have more of an idea of the experiences and angst that he faces each day than others and I know that that truth has brought M some comfort in his darkest moments. I can’t make EGID disappear, or allow him to eat completely normally once again – or, at least, not without some pretty catastrophic reactions that would take their toll and require a huge amount of time to recover from – but I can offer a level of understanding and empathy to him, along with an ever-ready cuddle, kiss and encouraging words from Mum, which may or may not be gratefully received depending on the occasion.

This week, social media, and Facebook in particular, is swamped with the CURED banner for NEAW, which promotes worldwide unity in the EGID community, with all of those living with EGID holding hands and pulling together to seek a cure. It is an image that has resonated with me, especially given the ongoing tumultuous relationship between EGID and the medical profession here in the UK.  Despite M’s objections to the word CURED (which actually stands for the Campaign Urging Research for Eosinophilic Disease) because, as he rightly points out, “…there isn’t a cure yet for EGID and this makes it seem as if there is…“, he too is a fan of the sense of inclusion rather than isolation that is reflected in the words. The realisation that EGID affects others just like him across the world is sinking in and we all find some comfort in the truth that other countries are investing in the area of gastro research, which includes seeking a deeper understanding about EGID and how it works.

Whether its eating like M this week, or sharing the same meals with him at different times throughout the year; supporting M when life isn’t going as smoothly as it could, or cheering him on when he’s talking EGID to those around him; or actively helping both him and G when they’re fundraising for the charities that have worked tirelessly to support them over the years, all of it is standing in unison with M during NEAW and for the rest of the year. Because unity is not just for a day or a week or even a year, but it’s for a lifetime and it’s a commitment I’m willing to make to the EGID community, not just to him.

The question is, are you?

#NEAW2018: D is for Donate

May 21: D is for Donate

There’s nothing I hate more than spotting a charity canvasser on the street and I’ll happily confess that I instantly become one of those individuals who speed up and drop my eyes down to avoid drawing too much attention to myself if I can help it. It’s not that I’m not prepared to donate to charity – oh how ironic this post would be if I was – but I am definitely not a fan of being pressured to sign up to an ongoing commitment to any one charity whilst out and about doing other things. Part of my problem is that I hate to say no to people and always end up feeling very disingenuous as well as guilty when I come up with a reason why I don’t want to set up a regular donation on the spot.

A cash donation can help, of course it can, but these days I don’t really know what charity to suggest when it comes specifically to making a financial contribution to support those diagnosed with EGID. There are no charities in the UK currently working on research into gastro conditions and few investing time and energy into supporting families living with the consequences of this challenging diagnosis. As long as gastrointestinal disease remains the “poor” cousin to so many other life-impacting conditions, there is little chance of much progress when it comes to finding ways to improve the day-to-day life of those living with it.

However, donation is about much more than just the money. Your time, your care and your support can make an incredible difference to a family living with chronic illness and the impact should never be underestimated. When someone takes 5 minutes to ask how M is doing, and, even more importantly, asking how G and the rest of the family are too, that effort is priceless. At the moment, we seem to be a state of status quo with M’s health which is fantastic, but there is also a sense of overwhelming ennui when it comes to our ongoing relationship with our local hospital and M’s gastro consultant. Taking the time to talk to me about life apart from M’s EGID makes a big difference and should never be seen as inconsequential. We teach M constantly that there is so much more to life than his illness and it’s important that we hold on to that truth and don’t get bogged down in the mundane.

There are, of course, a million and one charities who need financial support and it’s a challenge to choose the cause that’s not only closest to our hearts, but needs that money the most. This year we’re not actively fundraising as part of NEAW, mostly because I only changed jobs a month ago and haven’t found the time to be more organised, but thanks to M’s bold cheek, we have a small fundraiser planned for the end of June. Last year, he asked the founder of their Saturday dance school if this year’s end of year concert could be a fundraiser for the amazing Over The Wall charity and he and G are now working hard on their presentation to introduce the evening. M is thrilled to be attending an OTW Health Challenges camp again this summer and we continue to be extremely grateful for the care, support and opportunities they have given both children. Both OTW and my new role with our local air ambulance have shown me so clearly that whilst the money is important and enables both charities to continue doing their fantastic work, volunteering with them has equal value. At work our volunteers are an integral part of our workforce and the truth is, quite simply, that their daily contribution to the running of the charity cannot and should not ever be underestimated.