Saturday, 27 April 2013

Living with a Rare Chromosome Disorder: A Life Transformed

Well....Chrissy's clinicians have deemed her ready for discharge now, just as I was beginning to wonder whether I was kidding myself to think that her behaviour and epilepsy would ever be stable again.

Since the last meds change several weeks ago, every day has been a sunshine day. We're almost at the optimum therapeutic dose of Zonisamide, at which point the stop-gap antiepileptic, Clobazam, will gradually be withdrawn.

It's heartwarming to see 'no seizures' and 'no challenging behaviours' recorded each day in Chrissy's ward/home report. The episodes of inconsolable distress have vanished. Music from her Ipad makes her dance in her chair and her cheeky chuckles ring out around the house. I took the photo above when we were sitting in my car and she had just reached across to stroke my arm lovingly. Simple gestures like that mean the world to me as Chrissy doesn't often instigate affection.

She is having a great time exploring the new ipad she got for her 29th birthday, doing puzzles, building snowmen and causing mayhem in her virtual home. At first she used different fingers and even changed hands to manipulate objects around the screen - but she's learning fast. She has relatively good manual dexterity and loves anything to do with computers.

On our morning walk to the village shop, Chrissy pointed out sights that interested her, including a metal arch over someone’s gate. 'Rainbow!' she cooed, then stood admiring it for a while. I was enchanted.

Chrissy admiring the 'rainbow'
Chrissy still struggles with transitions and needs all our attention but she's content and responsive, which makes our job much more rewarding. She wants to be out there living her life now. The unit do their best, and do take her out, but not as often as she would like. This morning when I asked her to take her medication, she replied: 'When the night staff come!' It's definitely time for her to move on but we've had to involve solicitors to focus commissioners' minds as things were dragging on. This has been the case with each of Chrissy's major transitions over the past few years. Legal aid cuts are brutal but, in this instance, Chrissy's solicitors were able to demonstrate that we had exhausted every other avenue and only turned to them as a last resort. She will, however, have to pay a contribution.

Chrissy's housing options are still unclear but we are finding a way through the maze. One of the biggest barriers we faced was accessing social housing. I was advised to bid on local homes by Chrissy's commissioners but after several bizarre 'admin errors,' a housing officer said that Chrissy wasn't 'well-placed' for general purpose social housing as she was 'unlikely to be thrown out onto the street.' If someone without a learning disability is at the point of discharge from hospital they would be moved to a priority banding..... The very few adapted properties that I've seen on the website are for the elderly only and, although Chrissy moves slowly and cautiously, she doesn't need adaptations for limited mobility. I then learned that there was a supported living panel at our local CC, which we had not been told about. Our local council's policy documents state that social housing for vulnerable adults and those with a learning disability are their priority. This hasn't been our experience and we've put in a Freedom of Information request to identify how many people with a learning disability have been offered social housing in the CC's area over the past year.

We've also made a mortgage application on Chrissy's behalf, which would be paid for from her benefits, and we're still exploring shared ownership schemes through registered social landlords. I had been left to deal with all this confusing information but now I've had enough and forward emails to the commissioners to deal with.

Chrissy finally has a social worker! Perhaps the long-awaited community care assessment will be done now. She must surely benefit from Social Services and NHS commissioners working together but why has it taken so long when the planning process has already taken place?

So, I'm still fighting to get Chrissy an appropriate care and housing package in the community, but the sting has gone out of it because she is so settled and content. This stability was only achieved by her spending time in an assessment and treatment unit and, in our view, the Government's knee-jerk reaction after Winterbourne to close down such units is misguided and dangerous. There's no doubt that big changes needed to be made, not least for assessment and treatment units to live up to their name - to assess and treat their patients - but we have much to thank Chrissy's unit for. They've brought her back to us.

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Thursday, 11 April 2013

A Special Celebration & Undiagnosed Children's Day

When Chrissy arrived during the hottest April for 100 years, I was the proudest mum in the world. I was 23 and a first-time mum. It felt like my greatest achievement ever.

My baby looked flawless and her beautiful dark eyes seemed to take in every detail of her surroundings. In her little perspex cot on the maternity ward she waved her hands around so energetically that I called her our 'air traffic controller.'

Then the dark shadows started pressing in. Thank God we can't see what lies ahead of us.....

Like many children with undiagnosed genetic conditions, Chrissy was a failure to thrive baby. She struggled to feed and gain weight, and was floppy and sleepy - but she was a mass of contradictions. Mostly she was sunny-natured, alert and content to coo and watch the world go by but, even in infancy, she had prolonged spells of inconsolable screaming, and no one knew why. The rest is history and detailed in my book: 'Bringing Up a Challenging Child....

Although we now know the cause of Chrissy's problems, she still remains quite an enigma to us and to her clinicians, despite spending three years in an assessment and treatment unit. We know her chromosome disorder causes hugely variable effects but her learning disabilities are significantly worse than most people affected by 1q21.1 microdeletion, even those with a larger area of deleted genes.

So where are we 29 years on?

We have another CPA (care plan approach meeting) coming up on Monday that we never expected to have. Chrissy has now been in the unit for over three years and is ready for discharge but despite my monumental efforts to find solutions and move things forward, she is still stuck there. The Government is very clear that people with a learning disability should be supported to live in their own communities so it is difficult to understand why there are so many barriers in place. I feel like I'm stuck too. It has been left to me to drive it all, and I now spend most of my time on this. It's the same with every major transition, eg when she went into the unit I was driven to the brink of despair along with her. Not only was I in pieces over her suffering but I fought epic battles to get her into hospital. Why does it have to be like this?

Mencap are very interested in Chrissy, and are finding it hard to understand why the situation has dragged on for so long. They are incredulous about the amount of correspondence that I've had to engage in to try and understand the barriers, and to try to move things forward for Chrissy. Her case has been brought to the attention of Chris Bull MP, who is leading the Joint Improvement Programme to move people out of assessment and treatment units after Winterbourne, and Norman Lamb MP, Minister for Care, who has asked to be kept informed of progress relating to Chrissy's case.

Our experiences are echoed by this excellent article highlighting flaws in the Government's plans to move people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviour out of assessment & treatment units into community-based settings:

Chrissy's most recent (and hopefully last for now) medication change has been from the antiepileptic, Keppra, to Zonisamide. Because she had three seizures in a row after Keppra was withdrawn, Clobazam, a benzodiazepine derivative like Valium, was added to Zonisamide and Epilim. Clobazam will be withdrawn when Zonisamide is titrated up to the therapeutic dose. Chrissy is already on the maximum therapeutic dose of Epilim. I've discussed seizure control/quality of life and my fears about the effects of medication on Chrissy's mood, health and general well-being in previous posts. Clobazam's sedative effect is dragging Chrissy down. I can't wait for it to end as it breaks my heart to see another drug stealing away her personality, and sapping her energy and intellect. I have to remind myself how far she's come - she rarely has screaming outbursts now and, as the effects of her medication wear off during the day, Chrissy is her old self again. It's a delight to see her enjoying jigsaw puzzles again, a skill she excelled at as a child.

Now Chrissy is more aware, she says with increasing frequency: 'I don't want to go back to the hospital.' I have sleepless nights, guilt trips and anxiety attacks over how she must feel living in a locked ward for so long, her suffering and disorientation from the effects of different medications, what she's gone through over the years, what the future holds for her etc. Of course I can only imagine how I'd feel in her situation but, no matter how hard I try to banish those thoughts, they haunt me. It would be such a relief to see her settled again near her family where we can be more involved on a daily basis and help with her support. It's the least she deserves.

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