Tag Archives: Chronic Illness

NEAW 2017 – His illness does not define him

Our life experiences influence our view of the world that surrounds us. Good or bad, everything we do or see or hear or learn will affect our outlook on life, on whether we become individuals who see that hypothetical glass as being half-full or half-empty and how we react to our interpretation of that reality. When you’re growing up with a chronic illness as your one constant companion, it can come as no surprise that that condition begins to shape the person you become and the relationships you have with the rest of the world.

Rightly or wrongly, I have encouraged M to embrace his EGID diagnosis and become an advocate for himself and others living with it. M is, without a doubt, so much more than this disease and yet it is an integral part of the young man he is growing up to be. Our local gastro team are keen that M doesn’t view himself as a “sick kid”, that he doesn’t let his diagnosis stop him doing whatever he wants to do or being what he wants to be and those aims sit well with our approach to helping him cope with it all. However, I can’t and won’t agree to ignoring the reality of his life – the numerous hospital appointments, admissions and procedures; the daily medicines; the restricted diet and 12 months with a NG-tube mean that he is not like his friends, like other kids his age. In the last year alone, M has been seen at our local hospital over a dozen times and that does not make him the same as the rest of his classmates. Despite everyone’s best efforts, 2 and a half years after that first feeding tube was placed, M still only eats 6 safe foods on a regular basis and that makes him stand out from the crowd, not just at school, but at every activity or event he attends. He is, in all truth, a “sick kid”, but that label does not sum up who he is as an individual.

No matter what the medics suggest, I can’t pretend that all those experiences didn’t happen to him, to us as a family, but I will endeavour to make sure that M’s illness is not all that defines him.

Yes, he’s a child who cannot eat the same as his friends; but he can eat out and enjoy food with them.

Yes, he’s a child who lives with constant pain; but he has learned to ignore it and overcome it and achieve despite it.

Yes, he’s a child who spends too much time in hospital at medical appointments; but he is developing a confidence to question and understand and advocate for himself.

Yes, he’s had experiences that most adults I know would struggle with; but he has developed tremendous courage and an increasing self-worth in who he is as an individual.

The truth is that, just as my 30+ years with T1D has shaped the woman I’ve grown up to be, M’s life has been, and will continue to be, affected by his EGID diagnosis. We cannot pretend that the difficult times haven’t happened, we can’t airbrush them out of our family history and it would be doing a disservice to the fortitude and bravery of both my children if we tried to do so. They are so much more than the sum of their parts and whilst EGID has an unquestionable influence on the individuals G and M are becoming, it absolutely does not define either of them in their entirety, and nor will we ever let it.

This year we have decided to continue our support of the amazing charity, Over The Wall and their camps. If you’re able to donate even a very small amount, please follow this link to my Virgin Money Giving Page where your donation will help more children living with chronic illness like G and M by giving them and their families a chance to enjoy some much-needed time away from it all.

Young Carers Awareness Day 2017

Today is Young Carers Awareness Day, a national day for the recognition of the estimated 700,000 Young Carers in the UK. I’ve written before about Young Carers and how G was finally recognised as one last year. She now regularly attends our local carers support group and has developed friendships with a couple of other girls who are in her year at her secondary school. Young Carers can care in a number of ways, the most obvious being giving physical help to family members, but, as we discovered with G, the emotional and psychological support given is just as important to recognise and can take just as big a toll on the young person. Organisations such as the Carers Trust, Barnados and Over The Wall all work to ensure that these young people are given the same opportunities as their friends and have time to be a child. This support is vital to ensure that G, her friends and others like them have as happy, healthy and balanced a childhood as they can.

ycad2017-whoarethey_a3poster-page-001

Beating the Blues

Today is Blue Monday, the day predicted to be the gloomiest day of the year due to bad weather, the stark reality of our Christmas over-indulgence now affecting our dwindling bank accounts, the post-Christmas buzz that has completely disappeared from the horizon and our well-meant resolutions that are proving far harder to keep than we ever imagined. There are some New Year resolutions that you know will be difficult to keep beyond the first few days – abstinence springs instantly to mind – and then there are those that will never, could never be a challenge, but rather are an absolute pleasure to complete. Last year gave our family 2 amazing opportunities, experiences that were so life-changing, so extraordinary for both children and so liberating for us all that I knew that one resolution that I would not fail to meet was to write a post to not only recapture what are amongst my most favourite memories of 2016, but to also encourage others to get involved with what is a truly inspirational organisation.

9a78a65173e2885ea3a8c8b9d3ccd1acThanks to the amazing charity, Over The Wall, last year both G and M were able to escape from the reality that is their life at home coping with chronic illness and find a world where nothing could hold them back or stop them from achieving what might have previously seemed to have been impossible. G discovered a group of friends who could understand completely what life can be like when you have a sibling with serious health issues, but who got to know the unique, kind-hearted, gentle-spirited and passionate girl she can be in her own right and not simply as “M’s big sister“. Her confidence grew as she responded to the love, focus and encouragement that was given to her throughout her week away and she found a new and irreplaceable identity as a valuable member of last year’s Purple Girls at the South Siblings camp. Likewise, just a few months later, M was able to experience, for the first time ever, a week away from family, where he got to be as carefree a child as his school-mates are and could try out a whole host of new activities, confident and safe in the knowledge that his medical needs were being well-managed by the volunteer team surrounding him and he just needed to concentrate on having fun. Their time away from home taught them both that there is more to them than EGID and food allergies: Over The Wall truly gave my children wings to help them soar.

So, why write once again about the extraordinary adventure that is Over The Wall? Well, with a New Year comes new opportunities and you don’t have to have a child living with a chronic illness to be able to become involved with this organisation:

  • Application forms are currently open for places on the 2017 camps and be it the Siblings, Health Challenges or Family camp that meets your needs, now is the time to register your interest and find out if you can secure a place. Both children are glad to know that their forms have been completed and sent off, and it’s just a case of waiting to see if they’re back to the camp bubble this year
  • These camps depend heavily on the huge amount of time given to them by their team of dedicated volunteers. If you’re interested in volunteering your time and helping make a difference to young people impacted by health problems, volunteer applications are also now open. The medical team who willingly give their time are unquestionably invaluable, but whatever your skills, know that your presence will undoubtedly make a difference to the children that are there
  • OTW offer these camps free to those families who attend and to be able to keep doing what they do and successfully reach out to even more young people, they need your help in raising funds. As a family we decided to focus our fundraising efforts last year on OTW and will continue to do so for 2017. Thank you so much if you helped us make a difference in 2016. Cake sales, sky-diving, shaving your head or running a marathon – whatever your interest, please consider supporting this charity by raising sponsorship or making a donation

And just in case you needed a reason to support and spread the news about Over The Wall, here’s a few photos that capture the magic that transformed the lives of G and M in unimaginable ways in 2016.

The impact of mental health

In a world that is frighteningly open as people regularly share their location, activities and even the contents of their lunch box via social media, there is still a huge reluctance to linger on anything that hints at emotional instability or mental distress; but the sad truth is that matters of mental health are a huge part of living with a chronic illness and not just for the individual concerned. Today is World Mental Health Day, a day that is seeking to raise awareness of mental health conditions in an open and honest way, to encourage individuals to understand more about how these problems can affect just about anyone at one time or another in their lives and how others can support them. There is a tendency to make light of the language used when referring to mental health issues, after all, how many times have we heard someone say that they’re feeling depressed about having to go back to work after a holiday or the break-up of a particular pop group1-in-6-wmhd, when what they really mean is that such events have saddened or upset them rather than the total immobilisation that comes when you struggle with depression on a daily basis. I am not devaluing the emotions they may be experiencing when those things happen, but are they really akin to the overwhelming nature of depression? I think not.

I don’t speak lightly as I have been dealing with the constant presence of recurring depression since my teenage years. I know what that “black dog” is like and just how much it can impact on your ability to function on a day-to-day basis in the real world. As a teenager living with T1D, I struggled with accepting that this was a reality that was never going to change for me, that the need for regular injections, sensible eating and facing the risk of serious complications was never going to disappear. I didn’t handle it well. Though few of my peers may have realised it at the time, I refused to do what I needed to do to maintain my health, not because I wanted to cause myself problems, but because I couldn’t see a way to live like my friends and not feel isolated by my T1D diagnosis. I know that I was not alone in my reaction to my chronic illness and my family and I owe a great deal to my fantastic consultant who worked hard to help minimise what often felt like insurmountable differences as I went through those troubled years. With time and support, untitledI did eventually come to terms with my diagnosis, though sadly my determination to get my T1D control back on an even keel brought with it an unexpected complication with my eyes, which in turn has led to even more serious implications than I could ever have imagined when I was 13 and feeling very much on my own in a battle against the rest of the outside world.

Move forward a few years and I found myself back in the mental health fight when I was diagnosed with post-natal depression following the difficult pregnancy and early arrival of M. This time I was more open to receiving help and my diagnosis, when it came, proved a huge relief as I didn’t have to actively speak out and ask for that support. Having struggled with counselling as a sole answer to my depression as a teenager, I readily accepted the suggestion from my GP that I be prescribed with low-level anti-depressants for the first few months and am not ashamed to say that those helped me through some very dark times indeed. Anti-depressants are not for everyone, just as much as counselling hasn’t always proved to be a success for me. There should be no stigma attached to needing that medicine to survive the battering of a mental health problem. It is a necessity for some, just as insulin keeps me alive or a feeding tube and elemental feed proved to be what M needed to help him regain better health.

I have learned over the years to identify when I start to feel a little low and my ability to cope with the everyday becomes more of a strain. Mike and my Mum have developed their own sixth sense to pick up when I am beginning to struggle and offer me their unfailing support as I try to find my way back out of the pit. Our 7 year journey to get an initial diagnosis for M and the ongoing challenges in keeping him fit and well have taken their toll and there have been times when tempers are frayed and relationships fractured because of it. 1-in-3-traumatic-event-wmhdThat strong support network of family and friends who are constantly surrounding me is invaluable and the knowledge of what is really important – M and G – keeps me getting out from under the duvet every morning and making my way through each day.

Even more importantly, my own experiences with chronic illness mean that I am well-tuned to the impact that his own diagnosis will have on M. It is a frightening reality to face that your own child might end up fighting the same demons that you did at that age, but it also gives me an insight that lends a level of trust and understanding between M and me that is unlike the relationship he has with anyone else. I can fully empathise when life seems unfair and unjust and he can allow his emotions to pour out because he believes that I get it. We have long been arguing for psychological support for M and finally, thanks to a developing shared care relationship with our local hospital, that seems to be being put in place. Our new gastro consultant has fully acknowledged that the EGID diagnosis will have not only shaped the person M has become, but also had an effect on G and on our family dynamics. He wants to adopt a holistic approach to treating M and the next few weeks will tell if that is a solution that will make a significant difference going forward. I know that recognising the signs of mental stress now are really important when it comes to M’s ongoing mental health, especially as there can be no denying that he already struggles with mood swings, anxiety and feelings of isolation, not just due to his EGID, but also because of his dyslexia and dyspraxia. Early recognition of those symptoms will help us and the medical professionals find a way to put into place coping mechanisms that will serve him, not just now, but into his adulthood too. He already has a good cohort of friends surrounding and looking for him, but they are young, only 10 years old. Just as with any other child as they grow up, he will learn to distinguish those who will stand by him through thick and thin and those who are just there for the fun times. Most importantly to me, 70300is that he doesn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed by the times when he’s not able to cope emotionally, or mentally, or even physically with the pressures that his diagnoses will have on his life, and that he learns to openly acknowledge them; and that he realises that he’s not on his own in that regard.

Likewise, we can’t ignore the reality that having a chronically ill sibling has a massive impact on G and her mental health too. The Young Carers meetings that she has attended over the last few months have covered the areas of anxiety, facing fears and anger management, which are all inextricably tied up with the role of being a young person caring for another. Those sessions have taught her strategies for dealing with her yo-yoing emotions and provide an outlet for them in a safe and understanding environment. She has made stress balls and relaxation jars to bring home and use as she needs. I hope that the proposed psychology appointments at our local will not only look to support M, but also to help G in her own right as well as us as a family. These are all things you don’t want to even consider that your children might ever need to deal with, but there is no escaping the reality of chronic illness and mental health, and we need to accept our responsibility to help them both. That is the key message of today’s World Mental Health Day – that we all have a role to play in supporting those around us as best we possibly can.black-dog-step-on-you

And the money kept rolling in…

Every year when National Eosinophil Awareness Week rolls around, we start thinking about how we’re going to raise more awareness about EGID, particularly in the public eye. During that first year, our focus was all about our awareness as a family and understanding more about how his diagnosis with this rare condition was impacting on M’s everyday life. As time has passed, we’ve looked for different ways to spread the word, reaching out into the wider community and have found that our efforts have naturally evolved to encompass an element of fundraising as well. Whilst the focus of NEAW is rightly about otwmaking sure more people know about this condition and what it means to be living with it, and donations of time are as valuable, if not more so than those of money, we know that any money we can raise will make a difference to the charities we choose to support.

This year we wanted to show our appreciation for the amazing work done by Over The Wall in running camps for children with serious health challenges, their siblings and their families. The truly fantastic week away that G enjoyed at Easter made an incredible difference to her, perhaps even more than we realised at the time. During a recent conversation with G and M about the Allergy UK Hero awards, we got to discussing the reasons why we might nominate each other for an award. To my surprise G stated that my efforts at finding out about and then sorting out her week away at camp was the best example of how I had made a significant difference to her life as an allergy-sufferer and sibling to a chronically ill child. That comment, for me, sums up just how significant the opportunity to have time away from the stresses and strains of life at home with M and to just be a child really was to her.

IMG_3019

During May, I started to document how our fundraising efforts were going and the different opportunities I had found to raise even more for our chosen charity. We had fantastic support from M’s school, who helped him raise an incredible £81 for OTW and through stalls at local community events and generous friends and family members, we raised another £172. Even better, we still have two fundraising plans in the pipeline, both of which came as something of a surprise to me, albeit a wonderful one. The first came when we were part-way through NEAW16, when I received an unexpected phone-call from the Head of Year 7 at G’s secondary school. Thanks to the continued support from our local press and a well-timed article in the local paper, she had a proposition that overwhelmed me and almost rendered me speechless. Year 7 had an enrichment week coming up after May half-term and, as a lead-in to their week of activities, the year group would be having a non-uniform day on the previous Friday. Her suggestion was that the school would use the day to help us raise awareness of EGID and that the money collected on the day itself would be donated to OTW. indexThe reasoning behind this plan was simple and easy to understand: G and M. They wanted to show support to G as one of their own and, knowing how much she had benefitted from her week away and recognising her commitment to supporting M during NEAW, believed that this was the perfect opportunity to do it.

I was more than happy to agree to this proposal and G was soon on board too. She was asked to write a small piece about EGID, NEAW and OTW that would be shared during tutor time on the Friday morning and each tutor was asked to show their group the short film G and M had created for the week. A well-researched, well-written and fully comprehensive letter was sent out by the school to all families explaining EGID and the charity that the money given on the day would be going to.

This week a cheque was presented to G during the weekly Year 7 assembly for an amazing £280, or thereabouts. The Year 7 Head told me that there were several donations made that exceeded the suggested £1 because the funds are going to a charity that have already helped G and M – something I can’t thank my fellow parents for enough. This money will make a difference to Over The Wall and it’s great to feel that we’re giving a little back. It means that so far we’ve raised an astonishing £530, or thereabouts, which covers half the cost for a child to attend the OTW sibling camp. I don’t know what our final fundraising total for this year will be as there is still one event left to go in August, but I’m glad that we have been able to make such a success of our efforts so far.otw

Day 2: An even more energetic M!

 

amended

This is one of my favourite images from 2015: our own version of last year’s Feeding Tube Awareness week meme that I adapted using photos of M. Those photos were taken over an 18-months period and by picture 4 you can clearly see the improved colour and fuller cheeks of M’s face now that he was finally getting proper nutrition. After nearly 6 months being fed via his NG-tube, he had gained weight, had improved bowel function and was once again the cheerful, happy-go-lucky child that we had known him to be as a somewhat mischievous toddler.

Over the last 5 years, M’s seemingly unrelenting energy has confounded those surrounding him because M has never given up; has never let his EGID slow him down, even in the darkest moments. He has long since learned the lesson of “grin and bear it” because, quite frankly, the alternatives for him were unthinkable. M is a do-er. yourimageHe loves to run around and be on the go and into everything all of the time. I mean it. M just doesn’t stop, ever. He’s always given 110% to whatever activity he’s doing, even if it meant trying to finish a swimming lesson white as a ghost and with a temperature of 39.5°, or running the magic mile on the first day back at school after a week off vomiting and barely able to move from his bed or the sofa. Whilst you might often find G curled up in a chair or on her bed reading a favourite book, the only time you’re likely to find M doing the same is at 11pm when he’s waiting for me to come to bed before settling down himself, and even then you’re just as likely to find him playing his cello, or perfecting his dance routine, or building with his Lego.

We even managed a trek across Tower Bridge on our travels

We thought we had seen it all, but 2015 showed us just how endless his energy supply could be when he was being fed a balanced, nutritious feed that provided all the calories, vitamins and nutrients his growing body needed. No longer struggling with the anxiety of limited bowel function or working through the relentless chronic pain, M found the energy to achieve so much with his pump pack and feeding tube in place. He walked miles around London on our Shaun the Sheep hunt with no complaint of aching legs; he tackled and beat the challenge of learning to ride his bike unaided; and he continued to participate in the weekly sessions of Stagecoach that he’s loved for years, no longer needing to take regular breaks during the 3 hours training. We’re now 6-weeks into life without a tube once again and none of us knows what the future will bring. His year with the tube might be all that M needs, or we might see the return of it at an as yet undetermined point, but I don’t regret that year, not when I can see the improvements to M’s health and life and energy levels that it brought. His tube was never a barrier to his activity, but rather the boost he needed.

A pain scale for every season

My last blog post about M’s interpretation of his pain and how important it is for his medical team to understand him sparked a series of interesting conversations both on-line and in real life about just how effective pain scales can be for those who suffer from chronic pain. So many shared their own experiences of how their children express their pain and adapt to a new “normal” based on what their average day looks like and the symptoms they assume to be something that everyone has because they’ve never learned any different. What was most fascinating was the array of ideas and examples of the different pain charts out there that were sent to me and I thought I’d share some of them with you:

painG’s godmother shared this pain scale image with me and I love the wording that is attached to it as it sums up to a tee how M has described his levels of pain over the years. From the magical unicorn of no pain at all which happens occasionally, to the breaking point of inconsolable sobbing and unbearable pain that little can ease, I’ve seen M pass through every stage of this chart on all too regular a basis. I doubt the colours, images or facial expressions would appeal overly to him, but it helps to clearly explain how he copes to those who need to know.

charlie_brown_pain_scale-170452A fellow FABED Mum sent me this one saying, “It’s the only one that’s ever worked – I think it’s because apart from the last face, they aren’t very emotional, so she is prepared to admit to them. There is a Lego one, but the emotions depicted on the faces is *extreme* – I think it’s more for a paediatric A&E type thing. So a kid with a normal pain/health experience would probably find it helpful, but the level of distress the pain correlates to isn’t much help for someone who has made this into their normal…I do think these pictorial pain scales are good – pointing is so much easier than talking, to start the process. R finds the words ‘annoying/uncomfortable/miserable/horrible’ very helpful and she even sometimes uses them without prompting.” The recent release of the latest “Peanuts” film will no doubt lend added appeal to this Charlie Brown themed scale.

legoThis third one I discovered through Twitter and was posted up by @2tubies, whose 6-year old son helped make his own pain chart for the school environment with the help of the school SENCo and his Mum. They used Lego figurines to depict how he might be feeling and offered some easy solutions for his symptoms. This solution-based approach is one that I find works well with M and have started using it more and more over the years. I rarely give M the option of staying home from school when he’s feeling unwell, but will instead list out those solutions I think might ease not only his pain, but also the whirlwind of emotions that is so frequently tied into what he’s feeling on a physical level. Whilst he was still being tube-fed, I would always start with the offer to slow down or even stop his pump for a limited amount of time and then followed that up with pain relief or a hot water bottle. My final question has always been what M thinks will help him the most and given he has a clear idea of what I’m suggesting, then we have always been able to find a solution that works for us both. Whilst giving these choices verbally works well at home, I imagine that presenting them in a pictorial fashion would make great sense in the school setting.

Of course, the ideas behind these pain scales can easily be extended to cover other physical and emotional needs that our children may have when outside of the home. When G was younger and dealing with her own health challenges, one of her fantastic teachers introduced the concept of a “magic marble”. We had discussed the use of a password, a word that was random enough to not be misinterpreted as a genuine contribution to a conversation and which would indicate that G needed help, but she was at an age when she was reluctant to vocalise her needs and the use of “rhinoceros” actually stuck out like a sore thumb most of the time. Instead, G kept her marble somewhere safe and easily accessible at all times, be that her pocket, bag, drawer or table, and just needed to give it to her teacher or place it on the teacher’s desk to indicate she needed some support. No other child was aware of the significance behind this marble and consequently didn’t bat an eyelid if they spotted her handing it over, assuming that she’d probably just picked it up and was handing it in. It was an easy way for G to communicate her needs about a sensitive subject and gave her a sense of ownership over a situation that was otherwise lacking her control.

Signal LightAt G’s secondary school, they have included traffic light coloured pages in the back of the pupils’ planners and the children are encouraged to use them by putting the relevant colour facing up on the desk if they need some help during a lesson, but are too worried or nervous to ask. For some children, a “traffic lights” approach using counters or cards can also be effectively used to indicate how they are feeling in any given situation, where red can indicate their sense of losing control or not coping with the environment surrounding them. The opportunity to be tactile with the counters may also help children with sensory issues order their thoughts and be more able to express them when asked. Even if the child is not able to share what’s troubling them, a clear plan of how the teacher or adult in charge should respond to each colour will change that child’s perceptions and experiences away from home. Similarly, M’s school uses a “Fist to 5” approach to their work, where fist indicates a lack of understanding and the need for some help, and 5 means they are confident and happy to carry on on their own.

Whatever the system used, these scales encourage a child to communicate with the outside world about how they are feeling and coping, even when they don’t have the words to express it.

What’s in a word

I’ve long been aware that when it comes to understanding M, it really pays to understand how he interprets and sees the world. As for so many who live with chronic illness, M’s life is coloured by his EGID and multiple food allergies, and his view of “normal” is understandably skewed by his daily experiences. Courtesy of katbiggie.comThe sad reality is that M has been living with the symptoms of EC for so long that he doesn’t always realise when something he’s feeling isn’t usual and we have often discovered a symptom months, or even years after it first started to happen. These problems are frequently something we could have helped resolve sooner and it is never clear just how long M has been coping with it on his own.

My first experience of this was when M had his second set of scopes done 2 years ago. The nurse had started him on Klean-prep via a NG-tube and told M to tell her if he started to have reflux whilst it was pumping into him. Reflux was something we hadn’t struggled with since he was a baby and so he didn’t know what she meant. My explanation that he might feel nauseous or have some sickness come up into his mouth was met by a puzzled look, “…but Mummy, I get sick in my mouth all the time, why do I need to tell her if that happens?” He was genuinely perplexed by this request and I was made suddenly aware that there was an awful lot more going on with him than we really knew about.

Strangely, during our latest GOSH admission, that issue with reflux once again raised its ugly head and yet again, M more or less accepted it as being back in his life without complaint. When we first learned about the reflux, we worked hard to uncover when it was happening most and started him on a daily medicine to help treat the symptoms. We quickly found that it appeared to be triggered when he ate potatoes and raisins and by cutting those from his diet as well as the new medication, the reflux fortunately seemed to ease. The day after we started the potato food challenge in hospital, M complained that he was struggling with some reflux and explained in extremely graphic details to nurses, dietician and registrar what he felt. Whilst they made note of this problem, disappointingly they didn’t do anything to ease the discomfort he was in and delivered that line of “…he just needs to push through this…” that I quickly came to hate. Their dismissive attitude shown so clearly in front of M and obviously picked up on by him despite the illusion of him being absorbed by the TV whilst plugged into his headphones, meant that he stopped mentioning it and the medics assumed that it was a one-off event only.

It wasn’t until they needed to start adding senna to the klean-prep to clear his system that we learned that M had not been 100% open about what was going on. The conversation had turned to whether he would willingly take the senna by mouth or if it was best pushed down his tube, when M casually commented that it didn’t really matter as he would end up tasting it either way. A little gentle prodding by his nurse soon revealed that the reflux had in fact been ongoing since the food challenges began and during that middle week of our stay, he had been experiencing the vile taste of the bowel prep in his mouth on a very regular basis.

This story for me explains why it is so important for the medical teams to understand that every child is an individual and have very different levels of what they can accept and cope with, particularly when it comes to gastro conditions. In M’s case, this means that knowing how to phrase questions and interpret his answers is key to learning more about how he feels, especially when it comes to his coping strategies. For a number of years, Mike and I have repeatedly told our consultant that we firmly believe M lives with a level of pain that he has come to accept as his “normal”. When you see M running around with his friends or experience the whirlwind force of his personality, this can be difficult to believe and the fact that, between my reluctance to allow either child to stay home from school unless they’re dying and M’s determination to be in the midst of everything as much as possible, he has remarkably good school attendance for a child with a chronic illness, is in stark contrast to the picture we’ve tried to paint.

It’s at times like these that the words used with M, and by M, can reveal the most. At one of the many meetings I had with his consultant during our admission, she and I had talked about what the future holds for M. She told me that we might just have to accept that he would need to live with a level of pain that others might consider unacceptable, so that he has a more varied diet to choose from and my words that he already lived with enough pain seemed to fall on deaf ears. It was only when M met with the lovely GOSH gastro psychologist half-way through our stay that he was finally able to talk about how he feels each and every day. Whats-in-a-wordShe quickly established that M differentiates between a “pain” and an “ache”, which meant that unless he was asked the right question, M would proffer surprising answers.

Of course, the truth of the matter is, as we have repeatedly said, M has an almost constant ache in his tummy and bowels that he has just accepted as part of his reality. He doesn’t call that “pain” and, perhaps because of my unwillingness to unnecessarily dope him up on Calpol at the drop of hat, he doesn’t expect to have anything more than a hot water bottle or wheat bag to treat that discomfort. M calls that an “ache” and when asked to rate how that feels, he cheerily announced it was usually around a 4, the level where they would start to offer pain relief on ward. So when he was asked by the nursing team if he was suffering any “pain”, his answer was almost always a no except when he was experiencing a severe tummy cramp – his definition of what a “pain” was. The nurses had been struggling to understand how he could be rating his pain at an 8 or 9 at one point, only to say less than 5 minutes later that he had no pain at all before they’d even had time to give him any pain relief. This insight into the workings of M’s mind was invaluable as it meant that finally we all – doctors, parents and M himself – were singing from the same hymn sheet and receiving accurate feedback from M about how he was feeling; and all because we now understood the power in a word.

But that wasn’t part of the plan

Without doubt, December whirled past in something of a blur. As I’ve already posted, we had been waiting for an admission to GOSH since last July and naturally it came when we were least expecting it. This admission had been planned by M’s dedicated dietician, who was hugely concerned by the continuing lack of progress we were making when it came to successfully reintroducing food back into his diet and she was keen to challenge him within the hospital setting so that they could see exactly what we were experiencing at home. Our initial discussions all those months ago were in terms of weeks: a lengthy admission, perhaps up to 6 weeks, to fully understand how M’s bowel and bplanody respond when food is eaten; a daunting prospect when you have another child to love and nurture at home as well as a job to hold down.

Move forward 3 months and we reached our October outpatients appointment with no admission in sight and, due to the lack of long-term gastro beds at GOSH, no clear indication of when that elusive bed might eventually become available. Cue the recommendation of a radical rethink and a change of plan to a one week admission, followed by a series of further 1-week stays, scattered here and there throughout the year as and when there was a bed. The gastro team, keen to get him in before Christmas, felt this was our best chance of getting a bed any time soon and so we rolled with the punches and agreed to this amended plan, still not quite clear as to when the admission would actually happen. Over the following weeks, I spent valuable time fine-tuning the details with M’s dietician, agreeing what foods we would choose for challenges during our stay and discussing what the medical team were hoping to achieve through this process. The hardest part remained the lack of a long-term plan. The truth is that M’s continued problems with so many of the foods we’ve tried to introduce is baffling his doctors and until this admission was under our belt, they just didn’t know in which direction we’d be heading next.

By the time M was admitted on December 3rd, the plan had been tweaked again and unsurprisingly would continue to be so during the length of our stay. That one week admission suddenly became a 2-week stay and the 2 foods we had agreed to trial: potato and sweet potato, suddenly became 4: potato, egg, banana and salmon. I had already expressed some concerns about the plan to challenge him with 2 foods in a week and the increase to 4 over a 10-day period was now ringing some serious alarm bells in my head. Mike and I knew full well that the chances were that I would be bringing home a less-than-stable M just in time for Christmas and were resigned to rolling our sleeves up and spending the holidaysSmall-Changes working hard to bring him back to a healthy position ready for the new school term. We weren’t happy about this situation, but felt there was really no alternative; we had to give their plan a try in order to find some answers.

Despite those misgivings, the ones I had fully voiced to everyone and anyone who would listen from the minute I first met with M’s consultant and dietician when we arrived at GOSH and that I continued to express through every step of the following 10 harrowing days, we set off on this plan with the hope that we would find another safe food for him and perhaps even start to understand what has been troubling his gut for so many years.

What wasn’t part of the plan was the continued reluctance of the medical teams in hospital to listen when I told them M was beginning to show signs that all was not well with the food challenges and that he was reacting to the foods;

the plan didn’t anticipate the reality of M’s bowel being so unable to cope that it refused to work properly by the time we were 10 days into the 2-week admission;

and it definitely didn’t include 10 litres of Klean-prep (the worst bowel prep known to man) being continuously pumped into his tiny body over a 6-day period in an attempt to clear the resulting chronic impaction.

Nowhere in the master plan had I seen fair warning that, by day 14, I would be rendered utterly helpless and only able to sit, holding his hand and massaging his aching limbs, as M was left bent double from the cramps that were consistently hitting an 11 on the pain scale, where 10 was classed as the worst pain imaginable.

dancing-in-rain

Somehow we limped through endless hours of pain and frustration and dashed hopes, and we survived. Somehow we talked and ranted and sobbed and challenged until finally the medics acknowledged that things had gone horribly wrong, and we survived. Somehow we managed to stand strong and stay strong and stand our ground and refused to compromise on what we knew was in M’s best interest, and we survived. Somehow we rode out the fiercest storms and learned to dance in the rain, and we survived. Somehow we found enough humour in each day to keep the smiles on our faces and to laugh the smallest of giggles, and we survived. Somehow we got through the unexpected and started to find our way back to our normality, and we survived.

But that wasn’t part of the plan.

A Girl’s Best Friend

For as long as I can remember – and trust me, my long-term memory is legendary in our household – G has been passionate about learning to ride. Both she and M did a brief stint at a nearby riding stable when she was about 5, but school, hospital appointments and other hobbies soon absorbed a lot of our time and riding somehow fell by the wayside. G frequently talks of her plans to own horses when she’s older and 20151018_131727has declared on more than one occasion that she has no plans to learn to drive when she reaches 17, but will instead ride her horse wherever she needs to go. Over the last 18 months or so, she started asking about the possibility of riding lessons again and it was then that my Mum came up with the idea of rewarding all her hard work for her SATs with a short course of lessons.

It took careful planning, the odd bit of rearranging and some tentative pencilling-in, but finally everything was sorted and G started her lessons. Her first lesson was a group one, but it quickly became obvious that she would learn more and progress quicker with some more focussed teaching and so we switched to a 30-minute individual lesson every other weekend. To say she is delighted to be fulfilling this long-held dream is an understatement and she has taken to it like the proverbial duck to water. With just 3 lessons under her belt, she is already cantering around the indoor arena 20151018_133210with confidence and impressed not just her riding instructor, but me too, with her sense of balance and ability to trot round with her hands and arms in every position imaginable except where you’d expect them to be.

Needless to say, horse-riding has become her favourite pastime and we have been inundated with requests for lessons as a gift from anyone and everyone prepared to contribute for both her birthday and Christmas. It has been fantastic to see her enthusiasm grow and the wait between lessons proves almost unbearable for her at times. What is even better is that this is something just for G, there is no irritating little brother to steal her thunder, although he has come along to watch her ride once or twice. The consequences of having a brother with a chronic illness mean that all-too-often G has been relegated to the sidelines as we’ve worried about M’s health or agonised over decisions regarding his treatment and diet; but in horse-riding, the focus is all on her: her teachers know nothing about M and his health and those 30 minutes are spent doing something she really, really loves. The lessons have also become an opportunity for G and me to spend some much-needed and precious time together, to chat about school, friends and life in general without the constant demands of M dragging my attention away from her; something I think we both have come to value.

IMG_0053