The “Mommy Guilt” When You Have a Child With a Rare Disease

M holding thermometer         

          Emergencies in my baby girl’s life were something of a biweekly event. Starting at about two months of age, I rushed my daughter to the Children’s ER often for gastric issues. These episodes consisted of her not being able to keep formula/food down, refusing to eat and screaming in pain that could not be comforted. I was told to switch formula time and time again until she was nearly 7 months old, at which time it was suggested she may be lactose-intolerant and we began a soy-based formula. But even then, she continued to have issues with her digestive system. and didn’t hold solid foods well.

            My daughter is now seven and still has gastric/digestive problems. We’ve since learned she is NOT lactose-intolerant. In fact, last year, she was diagnosed with a rare connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and she has type 3, otherwise known as hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (hEDS). I’ve learned to stop rushing to the doctor or the hospital due to her headaches, sore throats and stomach pains. In some ways, her being diagnosed with a rare disease has relaxed me when it comes to her medical treatment. The more I learn about hEDS and figure out her unique set of symptoms and their severity, the less I tend to freak out about certain aches, pains and other things that used to panic me.

            Yet, recently, I learned another lesson: that having a child with a rare disease will keep me second-guessing my choices regarding her care; that I’ll feel guilty about my decisions surrounding her symptoms no matter what I decide; that I’ll think I’ve made the wrong choice for her no matter what.

            I came to this emotional revelation a few weeks ago when she began complaining of stomach pains again. I gave my pat response I’ve learned over the years and on a Sunday evening, we went through her bed time routine as usual even as she persisted that her stomach hurt. The next morning, after she was dressed for school, I happened to caress the side of her head and realized she was warm. Her temperature was only 100.3 but I called school to let them know she wouldn’t be there. She was still saying her stomach hurt but her tone had changed to one of intense pain and urgency. I called her doctor and they agreed to fit us in later that day. I gave her some Motrin and let her lay down. Less than an hour later, I went in to check on her and found her white as a sheet, teary eyed and burning up. Her temperature had risen to nearly 103.0 even after a dose of medicine. I called the doctor and they said to take her to the Children’s Hospital immediately.

            After several tests and an x-ray, I learned that she was severely impacted. I was given a prescription for laxatives to give her twice a day for a week and told to continue maintenance laxatives so this didn’t happen again. The two lead doctors said this could have been related to her hEDS but we can’t know for sure. I sat there waiting for our discharge papers feeling silly all over again. I’d thought she had appendicitis or a similar serious condition and here she was constipated, albeit significantly. When one of the doctors came back in, I told him I felt ridiculous and he said, “Having a sick child can make you doubt yourself. Don’t let it. You’ve done the right thing.” It was then that I realized I was still jumping to conclusions that were far more serious than the end diagnosis (and thank God for that!); I was beating myself up for not taking her stomach pain seriously enough, for not taking action the night before even though if I called the doctor over her every stomach ache, it would be a daily, unnecessary occurrence.

            Rare diseases are tricky enough. Having a child with one is an emotional entanglement of worry, self-doubt, guilt, fear and feelings of inadequacy. I’d rather rush to the hospital and find out it’s simply a symptom of her hEDS than not act on it at all. But I also can’t rush down there each time something comes up. I feel jerked around by her EDS at times, like it’s playing a game and I can’t win no matter how hard I try. There’s one thing I know for sure though: that my daughter is uniquely wonderful; that’s she’s strong, creative, funny, intelligent; that she’s loved; that she brightens my life and many others. Her having a rare disease is a tiny, miniscule part of who she is. But it makes up a huge part of my emotional focus as her mom.

 

 

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School’s Inaccessibility Causes Bathroom Blunder

            It was meant to be a very special day at my daughter’s school. And, for the most part, it was. Her school recently had a day where the students were encouraged to invite friends and family members to watch a short concert and enjoy a reception afterwards. To my knowledge, I’m the only parent/caregiver in a power chair. I’ve always been impressed with the school’s accessibility. The floorplans are laid out where everything flows and if there’s a dip in levels, ramps are in place. There is also an elevator connecting the two floors. Until the day of the concert, I’d assumed the school was completely wheelchair accessible.

            I’m on a medication that acts as an extremely heavy diuretic in order to flush my body of its spinal fluid (my body no longer absorbs its spinal fluid so the danger is its ability to build up in/around the brain and spinal column). During the first song the children sang, I started feeling as though I needed to go to the bathroom. But didn’t want to make a scene leaving as I was sitting in front of the bleachers and would also have to get my Service Dog up and out with me. So, I sat there thinking I’d just make a quick getaway when I could. But each song led into another until I was hurting, I had to pee so bad! Finally, the principal dismissed the students and families and we all bled out into the hallway. I quickly went to a bathroom but upon opening the outer door, I realized I couldn’t even get my chair through. So, I backed into the hallway and headed towards another bathroom. This time, my chair got in, but there were no stalls big enough for me to use (not only needing to fit my power chair but also my Service Dog). I left that bathroom and saw some kids in the hallway. I asked them where there was a handicap bathroom and they pointed me in another direction. I got so excited until I realized the stall was long but not wide, meaning I’d drive up right in front of the toilet and need to spin around to use the bathroom – impossible.

            I grew increasingly uneasy, not just physically but mentally and emotionally. How hard was it to find an accessible bathroom? Why was this simple need so difficult to fulfill? I knew of one more bathroom I could try so quickly made my way there. And, there it was! A stall big enough for me and my Dog!! I pulled up beside the commode and shut the chair off, relieved to finally be able to use the bathroom! And then I reached for the transfer bar… that wasn’t there. My heart sunk; my face fell. I turned my chair back on and left the bathroom, tears forming in my eyes. In the 15-20 minutes I’d been searching for a place to pee, the other women who’d been lined up at different bathrooms were no longer there, having been able to easily satisfy a basic human function. I felt alone and inadequate, separate and different.

            I went to the main office and as I began explaining my dilemma to the secretary, I started sobbing. My pelvic area hurt; my pride hurt; my dignity was aching as well. She didn’t know what to do so she called the school nurse. The nurse came to the front office and tried to calm me down. I was told that she could help me use the bathroom but that was not the solution I was looking for. She told me she did this all the time when she worked in hospitals; I responded that I wasn’t in a hospital; I’m an adult mother who uses the restroom by myself and this was unacceptable to me. But there obviously was no other way for me to relieve myself so I went with the nurse down the hallway, passing students and their guests, towards the bathroom. I felt humiliated. It seemed like it was glaringly apparent to everyone who saw us enter that I’m incapable of using the bathroom unaided. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. It wasn’t that I had limitations in this area; the school did. But I wasn’t going to stop each person I passed to explain the situation; I simply swallowed my pride, my dignity, my capable self and let the nurse come into the bathroom with me.

            What ultimately had to happen for me to go the bathroom was the nurse not only helping me stand but her pulling down my pants and underwear while I held onto the top of the stall. She then had to pull my underwear and pants back up for me and help me back into the chair. To say I was mortified is putting it lightly. This should not have happened. There should have been transfer bars in the stall to allow me the dignity to use the bathroom privately just as every other student and adult did that day. My daughter and I are already different enough, and I was heartbroken that students had seen their nurse go into the bathroom with me – I didn’t want my having to pee end with negative consequences for my little girl. Kids can be cruel. Furthermore, the kids see their parents and adult friends in roles of authority, control and an all-around sense of what being a grown-up means. I want them to see me that way, too. Because it’s true – I am in a position of authority. And while we as adults don’t truly have control, it’s a natural assumption of a child to think that we do.

            Once I finished using the restroom, I had missed nearly the entire reception. I found my daughter and sat with her for about five minutes while she finished eating. She wanted to know where I had been and why I hadn’t joined her until that moment. I told her I had to use the restroom and she exclaimed how long it had taken me. I didn’t have the heart to tell her the nurse had to help me; she probably would have been confused as to why. She knows I can go to the bathroom by myself.

            I plan on meeting with the Dean of students. I intend to discuss this event with him and suggest necessary changes. I want this to be a moment of education for the school. This was not something that happened because I’m disabled. This happened because the school does not have the adequate and acceptable structures in place for someone like me. I may be their first disabled parent but I’m pretty sure I wont be their last. And I don’t want another parent to feel like I felt emotionally, mentally and physically that day. I don’t want them to miss out on an activity with their child because the school is not equipped for them.

 

Health-care Workers Skepticism Can Have Dire Consequences to Patients

I am writing this in hopes that others with rare disease(s) recognize the importance of speaking up; and health-care professionals of all types realize the importance of listening.

 

I found myself out of one of my medications and had no refills left. Out of the plethora of meds that I take, this is the one that keeps me alive – I have Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension, a rare disease which affects only one percent of the world. For an unknown reason, my body stopped absorbing my spinal fluid, so it builds up in and around my brain and spinal column. Fortunately, I am one of the 50% of patients who respond to this medication, which was the only FDA-approved med in my state at the time of my diagnosis nearly ten years ago. I went into ‘remission’ after one year of taking the medicine. Remission is a commonly debated term among the IH patient community as well as with doctors and specialists. For my purposes, I use it to describe the ceasing of my IH symptoms and leveling of my spinal pressure while ON medicine. However, in 2015, my CSF (cerebral spinal fluid) levels began to rise again, causing decreased vision, headaches and pressure within my head. My dosage was increased but I’ve since lost some vision in my left eye and still deal with headaches and pressure at times. Without the medicine, my CSF would increase until I experienced blindness, seizures, stroke or death. So, the medicine literally keeps me alive!!

My pharmacy contacted my doctor’s office on a Friday about refilling the medication but got no response. The pharmacist was kind enough to give me an emergency supply to last until Monday morning. Rx supply When Monday came, I contacted the office twice through an online messaging system, imploring them to refill my prescription that day as I was out of the med. By the afternoon, my pharmacy still hadn’t received an order to fill so I called the office. The nurse asked what I needed, and I explained to her the urgency of having the prescription called in that day. When I mentioned what the medication was used for, she replied with sarcasm, “It drains your spinal fluid?” I said, “Yes, I have Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension.” She said, “Huh, never heard of it. Well, I’ll send this to the doctor and tell him you say it’s urgent.” I got off the phone feeling hurt, frustrated and angry. Just because she’d never heard of my disease didn’t make it nonexistent! Her skepticism could endanger me! Sure enough, I called the pharmacy Monday evening to learn that they’d still not received an order.

So, Tuesday morning, I called the doctor’s office again in a near panic. I learned from the young lady who took my call that the nurse had not sent the message to my doctor but to his nurse and no action was taken! I again repeated how important it was that I begin taking this medication as soon as possible and why. I was told that she was marking it urgent and that if the pharmacy had not received an order within an hour, to call back and ask for her specifically. Low and behold, I was finally listened to! She listened and acted, and I had my medicine in a few hours!!

I thought about what would have happened had I not been assertive in advocating for myself. I thought about patients who may not know they have that right or feel confident enough to speak up. But, when people have rare diseases, there are medications we take that literally mean life or death for us. We matter! We’re important! We deserve to speak up for ourselves! We deserve to be listened to! We deserve to LIVE!

And, how about the health-care workers? The ones who aren’t knowledgeable about every rare disease? The ones who dismiss patients as hypochondriacs or dramatic instead of listening to them and taking them seriously? This kind of attitude can cause much harm in the life of a rare disease patient, not to mention their family.

So, if you have a rare disease like me, SPEAK UP! And if you work in the health-care system, LISTEN UP! Let’s start giving CARE to our RARE!