Friday 24th April marks the third Undiagnosed Children’s Day, a nationwide event to increase awareness of undiagnosed genetic conditions and raise funds to support the charity SWAN UK (Syndromes Without A Name) that is a lifeline for families with undiagnosed children.
But I want to explain why this isn’t just a day for us, and for families like ours. Really it’s for everyone else.
For future parents, grandparents, midwives, GPs, brothers, sisters and friends. Because no-one expects their lives to get so complicated, but having an undiagnosed child is so much more common than you might think. And knowing what to do, and where to turn, if it happens to you or someone you know, can make all the difference.
Before we had Orange, we had no idea it was even possible to have disabilities or additional needs without there being a clear diagnosis. We also had no idea that the little boy we were expecting would have any difficulties. We inhabited a much simpler world where antenatal tests instil a sense of security about the health and development of your baby and if there was anything to worry about or prepare for we’d know, wouldn’t we?
Orange was born in good health but it didn’t take very many weeks for us to notice he was having some difficulties. And while our GP agreed at his 8 week post-birth check that there were some concerns, his muscle tone was low, his neck muscles weren’t working properly, his development was lagging, he had minor hypospadias and his hearing was a concern, there was no explanation at this point about what this might mean.
With no support and no information, I spent every evening in the depths of the internet trying to match up my son’s symptoms, and my instinctual sense that something serious was wrong, with what I found in academic reports and health journals. What I really wanted to be told at that time was that everything was fine, but of course it wasn’t. The more I read the more I knew something was amiss, but if I could just find out what it was…
It was, without doubt, one of the darkest and most terrifying times of my life. More than anything, more than the prospect of raising a disabled child (which at the time felt insurmountable and which I was far from ready for, I mean, who is?), the single thing that made it so terrifying was the lack of information and support. We simply had no idea at all what we were facing, and no-one could tell us. It was a lonely, isolating and desperately sad time, when we should have been enjoying our beautiful new baby boy who was, and still is, an absolute darling little soul.
Soon enough we were into chromosomal testing to see if a genetic syndrome of some kind was causing Orange’s difficulties. Tests that would bring us the answers we had so desperately been waiting for. At last we’d be able to move on with our lives, knowing what was ahead.
Sitting on the kitchen counter top of our holiday cottage in St Ives one sunny afternoon, we got the call. Expecting the worst, I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing when Orange’s paediatric consultant called to say his tests were all clear and revealed no sign of chromosomal abnormality. Nothing.
I’m pretty sure I’ve never jumped for joy before but in that moment I did. In that small moment, I believed that, after everything, after all the worry and fear, we actually might have a completely healthy little boy. That all the fright and panic was unfounded. I’d been ridiculous. Over-anxious. And that actually he was going to be fine…
But of course he wasn’t.
What no-one had explained to me – no doctor, no paediatric consultant, no health visitor, no physiotherapist, no cranial osteopath – was that Orange was likely to have difficulties anyway. With or without a diagnosis. That it was very possible, common in fact, for children with often quite severe disabilities to have no diagnosis at all. And that Orange could very well be one of these children.
The dawning realisation that even with no syndrome to identify the difficulties Orange was having, he still faced life with disabilities, was crushing. Struggling to reconcile the ‘all clear’ test results with my little baby boy of six months who spent much of his life asleep, rarely smiled and was no closer to being able to sit up than a newborn, I turned back to the internet to search for answers.
And that is when I found SWAN UK, the charity that supports families with undiagnosed children.
At that point, SWAN UK comprised a small group of families that all too quickly became like an extended family of our own. Suddenly, we were not alone. We could see what the future might look like for us and could share the highs and lows of life with an undiagnosed child.
No longer were we alone in facing an uncertain future with our child. We had a place to inform ourselves, to find emotional support and to connect with other families experiencing the same.
Since that time, SWAN UK has grown to support over 1,000 families with undiagnosed children. And is still growing…
Undiagnosed Children’s Day is hugely important in reaching more and more families who are feeling lost and alone, just like we did, and to give them a place to feel listened to and supported.
But perhaps my greatest hope for Undiagnosed Children’s Day, is that it raises awareness among GPs, health visitors, midwives and paediatricians so that families who walk in our shoes in the future don’t have to walk alone for so long, or to ride the emotional roller coaster that we did, thinking for so long that with no diagnosis, there must be no difficulties, only to realise with time, that it doesn’t mean that at all.
I also hope that, like Down’s Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy, being undiagnosed quickly becomes a widely recognised condition, so that parents like us don’t face the shock, alarm and disbelief that we did as we realised that clear test results didn’t actually mean an ‘all clear’.
But also, my hope for Undiagnosed Children’s Day is to say to families starting out on the same path as us, and to those supporting them, that having a child with severe disabilities, with an entirely unknown future, while difficult, has brought many more happy times to our family than unhappy ones.
That while disability felt utterly terrifying, that as humans we are resourceful and capable. While we never expected our lives to get so complicated, we wouldn’t change it for the world.
SWAN UK needs your help!
You can help support families with undiagnosed children by donating to SWAN UK.
Currently a large proportion of the money that supports SWAN UK comes from National Lottery grant funding that is due to end in April 2016. The charity must secure alternative funding to continue to provide their unique service to families of children with undiagnosed genetic conditions beyond this date.
The money raised through Undiagnosed Children’s Day 2015 will go towards supporting SWAN UK in the future.
Donations to SWAN UK can be made via texting SWAN11 £[amount] to 70070 or online via their Virgin Money Giving page.