I was asked to start a blog by a few fellow zebras to share my experiences of being a mom with a chronic illness. Well, here I am. Before I get into all that though, it is important that you know my backstory, how I got to this point. I’m sure many of you can relate to my story, my journey to diagnosis.
In 2012, I was interning at the Cork Independent newspaper. During my time there I happened to take a liking to writing the health section of the paper. My parents were both nurses and my sister, also worked in healthcare so while I didn’t strictly follow the family tradition, I still had a keen interest in health. That year I decided I was going to enter the European Health Journalism Awards. The theme I chose was rare diseases. So, I contacted the Genetic and Rare Diseases Organisation (GRDO) and asked to be put in touch with a rare disease sufferer. Later that week I interviewed a woman about her disease, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS). Little did I know that the answers I has been searching for about my own illness had landed right on my lap.
There is an old saying within the medical profession: ‘When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras’. Dr Woodward, an American professor at the University of Maryland would instruct his medical interns to practice as the phrase suggests. You see, horses are common in Maryland, while zebras would have been relatively rare during the 1940s. So, one would assume that, upon hearing the sound of trotting hooves, that a horse would be the most likely explanation. I however, am a zebra.
My symptoms started as a child but got really bad by the time I was 14. Gradually, my knees began to hurt, especially when it was cold. By 16, it was unbearable. A few years later, the pain spread to my hips and ankles. The joints began to make popping and clicking noises. Frustratingly, blood tests for arthritis and x-rays all came up clear. Then I began to have problems with my stomach and experiencing fatigue. In college, I was vomiting almost everyday for a year and napped frequently. The fatigue hasn’t stopped to this day. A colonoscopy and endoscopy came up clear but my GP said it was irritable bowel syndrome. Some days, my abdomen swells so much, that I look pregnant. After my son was born five years ago, I had no choice but to fight the fatigue. I am not anemic, but as the months have turned into years, the tiredness has become overwhelming. The smallest of chores around the house are exhausting for me. Some days, I don’t even have the energy to get dressed and face the world. People commented on this and called me lazy. Without a diagnosis, I couldn’t give them a credible answer as to why I was sitting in my pajamas in the middle of the afternoon.
I was living in constant pain for years, feeling exhausted every single day and life on a day to day basis was unbearable. I felt as though I was going crazy. All tests, scans and x-rays were coming back negative and my doctors came to the conclusion that I was depressed, that my physical pain was a manifestation of something that was purely emotional.
Yes, pain and sleep disturbances can be symptoms of depression. Of course by that point, I became depressed. These doctors were the experts and who was I to argue? I was put on nearly every single anti depressant available on the Irish market at one point or another. Still, the pain and fatigue continued, so after eight years taking these pills, day after day, I was numb, floating through life. I felt useless as a mother, wife and friend.
Of course, I did have my good days, especially during the summer when the weather was warm and my joints didn’t hurt as much. For the past two years, the joint pain has spread to affect my hands and wrists, my back and neck too. If I move a certain way, a joint may slide out and back in again. But things changed for me in 2012 when I interviewed that girl. For the purpose of anonymity, we will call her Anna.
Anna has a condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS). EDS is a Connective Tissue Disorder. People with the condition produce faulty collagen, which is the glue that holds the body together. In EDS, this ‘glue’ is more like chewing gum and causes the joints to be loose, often resulting in dislocations. However, collagen is present throughout all areas of the body and therefore EDS is a multi-systemic condition with secondary conditions present in most cases. When Anna explained her symptoms, I wondered did I have something similar? I was so touched by her story and felt connected to this young woman that we kept in touch. In the meantime I was put on a public waiting list to see a rheumatologist. But then, in late 2013, I was speaking on the phone and then everything started to go black; I felt hot, my heart was racing, I felt weak. I ran to the bathroom to lie down on the cool floor. This gave me such a fright that I decided I wasn’t prepared to wait two years to see a public consultant. I had to know what was wrong with me. I was going to get answers.
I organised a private appointment with a physiotherapist who confirmed that I was hypermobile. The pieces of the puzzle were coming together. Then I arranged an appointment with a rheumatologist in Cork, with an interest in EDS and Hypermobility Syndrome. Two weeks later, the doctor confirmed that I had Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. I cried with relief that finally I could put a name to what I had. After a decade of tests and scans I had taken the reins myself and finally got my diagnosis with just two appointments. The majority of doctors in Ireland are unfamiliar with EDS and there are no specialists available here in Ireland. If there were more awareness and training, I may have been diagnosed much earlier in my life.
After my diagnosis, I began weaning off the anti depressants. That was two and a half years ago and I haven’t looked back since.
I was on a high the day I got my diagnosis, but the next I had to face the harsh reality that I have a rare, lifelong and progressive disease. Luckily, my EDS is quite mild compared to some of my friends and hopefully more awareness will mean better treatment for me, and my fellow zebras in years to come. The biggest help for me through all of this has been Facebook and speaking to other people with EDS. They are enormously supportive and there is a real air of solidarity. Everybody is supportive and no matter how trivial I thought my problems were in comparison, the support has been immense. Hopefully, together, we can raise awareness about this debilitating disease and bring about an improvement in the services available especially for our children.
My son AJ is six years old. In 2014 he was diagnosed with Hypermobility EDS. I had him seen by the Rheumatologist that diagnosed me. AJ bruises very easily and I worried that teachers might question whether he was being abused. Sadly, this is not an uncommon fear amongst the EDS community. Children have been known to be removed from the family home as their parents are suspected of abuse. Thankfully, his school has been extremely supportive, even helping us organise an SNA for him. AJs’ EDS is extremely mild at the moment. But, he struggles in school, especially with concentration and writing. This is common with EDS kids. He has sensory issues, which makes it extra hard for him. His pelvis is also unstable so sitting for long periods is impossible for him. A care plan has been put in place for him in school next year. Alex is a happy child though and has never had a severe injury, as of yet, for this, I am thankful.
In 2015, I was diagnosed with Orthostatic Intolerance and Vasovagal Syncope. I still have a long list of referrals to attend to investigate the array of health issues. There is a question mark over MS, Chiari Malformation, Gastroparesis, to name but a few.
The latest addition to our family is our little Olliepop, our 9 month old daughter. Obviously, she hasn’t received any diagnosis yet. But, deep down, I know she has EDS. Her sclera are extremely blue, a sign of EDS. The Public Health Nurse also noticed how flexible Ollie is, so much so, that she has been referred to physiotherapy. She suffered her first dislocation at just 7 months old. I fear for my little girl and what may happen to her. But, having a parent with the same condition will work to her advantage. She will be believed. She will not go decades wondering what the matter is.
Until next time,