Category Archives: Special Needs Parenting

#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.

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#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.

#NEAW2018: E is for Educate

May 20: E is for Educate

When M was finally diagnosed with EGID 5 years ago, it came at the end of a long, relentless and frustrating battle with the medical profession to have our concerns heard and acknowledged; and not simply be dismissed as over-protective parents; or worse. By the time the diagnosis was actually formalised, I had done a lot of my own reading around the subject and already knew as much about the condition as was readily available online. In the 5 years since that hospital appointment, we have found ourselves continually having to educate those around us, including the medics, who know little to nothing about what is becoming an increasingly controversial diagnosis, especially when it affects the lower GI tract as M’s does.

EoE, or Eosinophilic Oesophagitis, is becoming more widely recognised and the diagnostic criteria for this condition are well established, not least thanks to the continued research of Dr Marc Rothenberg and his team at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. When it comes to the rest of the GI tract however, there opinion is very much divided. There are no clear guidelines as to how any of the other Eosinophilic disorders should be identified and diagnosed; and as the recent documentary about GOSH revealed, there is definitely no consensus on how they are best treated. One of the biggest problems facing children like M is the minimal investment into the research of gastrointestinal disorders and the fact that there is absolutely none into paediatric gastro research. With the credibility of EGID as a “real” chronic illness under debate, consultants all too often veer away from it as a possibility and either move towards a more psychological diagnosis or simply shrug their shoulders and leave these individuals to cope on their own, with little or no regular input.

Whether you want to lay the blame of M’s health issues at the feet of eosinophils, or mast cells, or indeed any other type of white blood cell that could be causing his body to attack itself and react to more foods that you can even begin to imagine, I don’t really mind. I’m not one to hang my hat on labels particularly, especially when that label has no meaning for the greater proportion of the people that M comes into contact with on a day-to-day basis; but I also know that being able to put a name to a problem lends a sense of genuineness to his symptoms as well. As a family we’re not able to walk away from the reality of living with this condition day in and day out because every week we experience the effect of it. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it now and I will no doubt say it many times in the future:

The symptoms that M suffers are very real and can be hugely distressing at times.

M is absolutely your average 12 year-old. He has attitude, he knows it all and he could argue that black is white with the best of them. He loves computer games, fantasy stories and endlessly watching Star Wars or Marvel films. He runs around and is noisy and can drive even a saint up the wall at times. He doesn’t look ill and I’d defy anyone who doesn’t know him to pick him out as the “sick kid” in the line-up. But that’s the face he presents to the outside world and reflects the attitude to his health that Mike and I have worked hard to engender within him.

What you don’t see is the worn out child who can’t move from his bed at times because of the pain and lethargy that accompany a flare-up. You don’t hear the quiet heart-to-hearts late at night, when he’s struggling with yet another reaction and doesn’t understand why it’s happening to him again. You don’t feel the despair that hits hard after another food causes soul-destroying disappointment because it’s clear that he just won’t be able to eat it without problem. And you can’t imagine the heartbreak of seeing the quiet acceptance that he won’t be able to go to a friend’s sleepover or away on school camp because of the possibility of suffering an embarrassing symptom that none of his friends really understand.

That is the truth of life with EGID and that’s the reason we will always endeavour to educate those who come into contact with M as well as the rest of the world in whatever way we can.

#FFFA18: The Shortlist

It’s really only been a couple of weeks since I was a third-time judge at this year’s FFFA and the exciting news is that the shortlist for the Awards has already been published. I absolutely love scanning through the shortlist, even for those categories where I’ve been involved in the judging, because I find it so encouraging to discover a plethora of products, many of which I’ve never heard of before, which will make such a difference to those living with a variety of food allergies. As well as those I’ve already identified as particular highlights for me on the day, I was excited to see La Crèmerie’s rice yoghurt detailed on the Milk Product Alternatives list. I actually discovered this rice yoghurt during my visit to the Foodmatters Live conference back in November and whilst I have yet to try this with M, I know it’s something that could be a real game-changer for him and I’d love to see this do well in the overall Awards.

What has been even better for me this year than list after list of amazing foods, is the final named category: the FreeFrom Hero Award. Back in December I was asked if there was anyone I would like to nominate for this special category and it’s been really encouraging to us as a family to see our 2 nominees appear on the final shortlist. You can only imagine my delight this week as I received copies of the emails that have been sent to tell our very own heroes of their success. When you look at the list I’ve no doubt that you’ll immediately be able to identify one of the nominations I made, that of Steve Whitaker and Jason Conners, the cooks at Over The Wall. Ultimately I don’t know whether either of our suggestions will be the winners of the category, but I wanted to share my reasons for nominating this fantastic pair for special recognition at FFFA18:

Your reason for nominating them: M’s rare gastro condition, complex food allergies, restricted diet and associated problems has meant that he has never been able to stay away from home except with his Grandma. At nearly 12, he has never stayed away on a school camp or even had a sleepover with friends. In 2016, he was offered a place on the South Health Challenges Camp run by charity, Over The Wall, which meant he would be able to stay away from home for a week, fully looked after by an amazing group of volunteers who cheerfully give their time to support these children, who suffer with life-changing illnesses.

In preparation for the week, I spoke to OTW several times to discuss M’s dietary needs and at least 2 months before camp, I was sent a sample menu of the food that the chefs were planning to cook for him based on his extremely limited diet (just 5 foods plus 1 oil and sugar), which was truly amazing and that M loved the sound of. We touched base the week before camp to just check whether there were any changes and when we arrived at camp, the staff took time to meet with me to discuss all of his needs.

M ate like a king the entire week he was away and reluctantly told me that “Sorry Mummy, but their food was even better than yours!”. He was kept safe, had no allergic reactions because of their incredible awareness of the care that needed to be taken, was able to make friends with others facing similar health challenges, tried out so many experiences he’d never been able to have before and just felt like a child as his health problems firmly took a back seat to the more important job of him just having fun. As Mum, I felt confident that they knew what they needed to do to support him and have subsequently seen just how amazing their care can be when they called whilst G was away on sibling camp because they were concerned that she wasn’t eating the GF/DF food they were preparing for her.

We are hoping that he will be able to go to OTW camp again this year, but are just so grateful that he even had that opportunity to experience it once. These chefs (and all staff to be honest!) really deserve recognition for making M’s first experience of being away from home such a positive one.

The results will be announced on Twitter, on the evening of April 17th (@FFFoodAwards) and I’m hoping that we might once again be able to be there to recognise the hard work and incredible dedication of all those shortlisted finalists as well as celebrating the success stories of the worthy winners.

A Winter-themed weekend

For the 4th year in a row, I found myself not only in London, but also spending a little time at GOSH during the weekend closest to G’s birthday. Thank goodness that this year there was no admission attached to what is fast-becoming a December tradition, instead, just like last year, our reason for going was the December meeting of the GOSH YPF and with both G and M now active members of the YPF, we decided to make a weekend of it and round off the birthday celebrations in style, whilst gently kicking off our Christmas ones as well.

In the lead up to a previous YPF weekend, I was lucky enough to stumble across the Travelodge in Hounslow, which has quickly established itself as our destination of choice whenever we need to head to London for the weekend. A lot more affordable than central London prices, it is a short walk away from a secure car park and both the East Hounslow and Hounslow Central tube stations, making it an easy commute into GOSH in particular as all are stops on the Piccadilly line. This close to the end of term, we were able to take advantage of the fact that the out-of-school activities have now finished and headed to London on the Friday evening once G and M’s school day was over, and even managed a reasonable night’s sleep before our busy winter weekend began.

It started with our morning commute to GOSH, where we dropped G and M, both kitted out in their Christmas finery, for a YPF meeting filled with a whole host of activities and treats, including a hotly challenged Christmas quiz. Once the children were settled, Mike and I set off on foot towards Covent Garden and spent our day meandering the streets, exploring the shops and even managing to pick up the odd present or two as well. We stopped for a light lunch at the amazing Cafe in the Crypt at St-Martin-in-the-Fields, just off Trafalgar Square. This is fast becoming one of our favourite spots whenever we are in London as the food they serve is simple, yet delicious, they serve a few allergy-friendly snacks too and is a place I would heartily recommend to anyone looking for a peaceful break from the busyness of London itself.

Lunch done, we started our trek back to GOSH along Shaftesbury Avenue and stumbled across this group of festive, charity bike riders as we turned the corner towards our final destination. It really was a sight to behold as we were surrounded by Father Christmases as far as the eye could see and lovely to watch excited small children wave and shout out Christmas greetings as the cyclists sped past.

 

There was one last stop I wanted to make before we met G and M and that was at the Baileys Treat Stop pop shop located not far from Covent Garden. It was only open for 2 weeks and I was determined to take advantage of our trip and pay a visit there for a Baileys-inspired hot drink. The queue was long and it took over 40 minutes to finally get into the shop itself, though our patience was well-rewarded by the plethora of treats that was brought out to keep those waiting happy – chocolate eclairs filled with Baileys-infused cream, cups of popcorn and chocolate covered Baileys fudge and toffee. I finally made it to the front of the queue and having never tried their Pumpkin Spice version and not fancying a treat-laden hot chocolate, I decided to customise a Pumpkin Spice latte instead. I think the server was a little disappointed with my rather tame selection of “just” chopped nuts and wafer straws, but despite his best efforts, I held firm to my decision, which I maintain was absolutely the right one. However, the latte itself was incredibly disappointing and absolutely not worth the time and money I’d spent to get it. What I hoped would be a small Christmas treat for me really wasn’t and we wasted close to an hour with that detour.

However, the rest of our Saturday went according to plan and was a fantastic ending to G’s birthday celebrations. Both children had a great day at the YPF meeting and came away with some small and unexpected gifts and treats. G was really keen to have a Chinese meal for dinner and so we chose to double up M’s medicines throughout the day and then allowed him to relax his diet for the evening. Mike and I had done scouting around Chinatown during our day and we headed to the Feng Shui Inn for a few carefully selected dishes which the whole family enjoyed. From there, it was just a stone’s throw away to the Prince Edward theatre where we were treated to the delights of Agrabah, the fantastical quirks of the Genie and the addition of a handful of new songs to Disney’s Aladdin. This was G’s choice of show and I knew she’d enjoyed it when she asked at the end if we could see it again! It was an amazing production and we were incredibly lucky to see Trevor Dion Nicholas in the role of the Genie, a role he was reprising after a successful stint on Broadway.

Sunday morning saw another tube ride into London, though this time our destination was the Tower of London where we had booked an ice-skating session on the rink set up in the moat. Both children were keen to have a go at skating once again and Mike was just as excited. It took a little while for G and M to find their feet, but they were soon off and even attempting to get around on their own, away from the barrier. The session only lasted 45 minutes, but that was more than enough for all of us and M and I even left the ice a few minutes early due to the uncomfortable hire skates we were wearing. All in all, we had a fantastic and fun-filled family winter-themed weekend and it felt like a fitting end to what has been a long school term.

Brave New World

If you’re on any social media platform, be it Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, the chances are that your timeline will have been flooded this week with the ever popular first day photos like this one, on what an old friend humourously terms “National Stand in Front of your Door Day”. The start of every new school year always brings a list of tasks that need to be completed, which includes for us more than just name-labelling the new school uniform and buying huge amounts of school stationery that will potentially have disappeared by the end of the first week, but also making sure that we’ve dotted the “i”s and crossed every single “t” relating to the health needs of both children.

This year felt like even more of a challenge as M moves up into the same secondary school as his big sister and we find ourselves dealing with the reality of different teachers for every subject, a year group that’s bigger than the whole of his junior school and the need to educate the school in the world of M. The good news is that having reached the end of the first week, things have not gone horribly wrong and on the whole, it has all been a huge success. Every evening, M and I have looked through his timetable for the next day to discuss what he might need to do to make sure all his needs are being met as they need to be. I was as delighted as he was to discover that his educational needs have been noted on the tutor group register and so his teachers are aware that he needs extra support in relation to his Dyslexia and Dyspraxia. We still need to iron out the finer details of note-taking in class and how he prepares his homework for each lesson, but our unexpected find of yellow-tinted sunglasses whilst on our summer holiday have been an added bonus to helping him read the worksheets he’s given.

Disappointingly, though not altogether surprisingly, the level of awareness about his EGID and food restrictions has not been what we hoped it might be, but whilst my hopes were high, my expectations were truthfully quite low and we knew there would be work to be done in this area. He went to the Student Services with his medicines on the first day and by day 2 was confident enough to ask for a set of yellow cards, which gives him permission to leave class early to take them, jump to the front of the queue with 2 friends when it comes to lunchtime and go to the toilet whenever he needs to without having to wait and ask permission. Our biggest challenge was the one we feared it might be, that of the Food and Textiles classes that he will be taking this year. His cookery teacher was not aware of his dietary restrictions or just how important avoiding the cross-contamination risk is for M and so I’m waiting to talk to her after school on Friday to discuss just how we go forward with the lessons**. We are all keen for him to take these lessons and learn to cook, but Mike and I are very aware of the need to protect his fragile mental health and so will be working hard to make sure the cookery lessons don’t become a challenge too far for him.

As for G, my big girlie quietly and confidently started in Year 9 and is looking forward to the year ahead. She’s a little anxious already about making her GCSE choices later this year, but we have been spending time reassuring her that she won’t have to make those decisions on her own and that we will help and support her every step of the way, as will the school and her teachers. This year is a little different for G as they are now splitting a number of her classes into sets and her hard work over the last couple of years has stood her in good stead as she has been placed in the top 2 sets for almost all subjects.

It really is a step into a brave new world for the whole family and I can’t wait to see what the year ahead will bring for us all.

** So that conversation has happened today and I’m delighted to say was a really positive one. Mrs J has agreed that M can use ingredients and adapted recipes that are safe for him wherever possible and will work at his own station to help reduce the cross-contamination risks for him. She is as keen as we are to make the lessons a positive experience for him and will be regularly touching base with me to make sure we’re all getting it right.